Elizabeth Johnson’s book Ask the Beasts, which reflects on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, is the springboard for this series of posts.
Rather than classifying organisms according to their distinct forms, which naturalists deduce from their external characteristics and philosophers understand to be based on an archetype or fixed essence in a metaphysical sense, Darwin urged that it is better to think of nature in the following way. Individual differences are first steps toward slight varieties, which blend into well-marked varieties, which merge into sub-species, which become distinct species, which form large genera, the whole forming an insensible series. This series “impresses the mind with the idea of an actual passage”. Species once existed as varieties and have so originated; varieties are incipient species. An evolving historical relationship between organisms offers a distinctly different approach to classification. An organism should not be fixed in a category like a specimen butterfly on a corkboard, but traced in its movement within the larger story of life’s actual passage. No longer a collection of separate entities, the forms of life throughout the world become divided into groups emerging from groups along a beautiful narrative arc.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. (2014-01-16). Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (p. 50). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The above is a pithy summary of how Elizabeth Johnson understands Charles Darwin’s position in On the Origin of the Species. Up until Darwin most people thought of the animal and plant species as fixed essences over all time. Darwin introduced the element of variations over time and saw that there was no firm line between species and varieties.
Essentialism is a philosophical point of view that has been much criticized by feminists, for instance. Gender roles, they say, do not follow from fixed biological essences of male and female. Some men are more suited to nurturing children. Some women are more suited to running a company. There are individual variations. I don’t know what Darwin would have said about the gender issue. But he certainly laid the foundation for questioning the notion of fixed essences.
Theologically, a superficial reading of Genesis took the view that God had fixed the separate species at the beginning and that it had been that way ever since. When Darwin carefully looked at actual plants and animals and took long periods of time into account, he saw the world very differently. Note that Darwin not only upset the ideas of theologians of his time, but also of most scientists.
Johnson’s description of Darwin’s story of the course of developing life as “as beautiful narrative arc” is typical of her reading of Darwin. Darwin saw real beauty in natural history. Johnson takes this beauty as the opening to see Darwin’s theory in a more spiritual light.
She points out that Darwin specifically rejected the idea that what we see in the natural world results from pure chance. She says that instead:
The natural world’s beauty is due to the mutual interactions of species in the struggle for life. It is due to birth, thriving, suffering, and death which have brought forth organic beings having beneficial dependencies upon each other or advantageous adaptations over their competitors or enemies. There is a sense to it, a reasonable explanation for it. Mutual interplay has created the living world as we know it.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. (2014-01-16). Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (p. 55). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
She has a long and intricately detailed discussion of Darwin’s argument. She points out that many of the objections to evolution that we still hear were brought up by Darwin in the Origin. He welcomed objections and met them head on. Her exposition of Darwin’s book defies summary. She uses multiple details and examples from birds, insects, and plants that Darwin discussed. Overall, she thinks that Darwin merged all this into a moving final argument. He said, “there is a grandeur in this view of life.” Johnson agrees.
I am grateful for Johnson’s appreciative exposition of Darwin. It has been a long time since I have read any of Darwin’s work, although I listened to an audio book biography just a year or so ago. In the heat of the arguments about Darwin’s theory it is easy for us to forget the power and insight he packed into Origin.
She has more historical background concerning the reactions to Darwin, but I am going to skip ahead in my next post to her own reaction and theological reflection.