Before considering what have been the effects of the theory of evolution on religious views, I feel it is necessary to take a brief glance at the facts on which the theory itself rests; & therefore though I feel much hesitation before those many of whom most know much more about the subject than I do, I have been obliged to enter upon a few preliminary remarks upon the theory itself.
When men believed that there had been a special separate creation for every kind of living being, & yet at the same time they saw that individual differences occurred in reproduction, which in the course of many generations were known to bring about distinct variations, they were compelled to draw a sharp line between Species which had been separately created, & Variations which had been derived in the course of reproduction.
Careful study however shows that it is impossible to draw any such hard & fast line anywhere among created beings; for even the sterility of crossed breeds which might appear at first sight to differentiate them, may be shown to exist in so many different degrees that it would be impossible by it to draw a sharp line.
Thus we reach the first difficulty of those who believe in separate creations.
Again the study of comparative anatomy shows us the extreme similarity in bodily structure of animals even of different families, & this resemblance is still more striking when we come to examine the embryos of the different creatures.
These facts and many others which there is not time to enumerate are the main difficulties which would have to be met by one who believed in separate creation of every kind of animal.
And they all apply to man too; for his bodily structure very largely resembles that of the higher apes, & in the earlier stages his embryo is almost identical.
He too possesses rudimentary organs, useless & sometimes injurious to him, which however are useful to other animals.
Some have said however that man should not trust the conviction of his senses when they come in conflict with Revealed Truth; our answer to this is prompt[:] ‘If all this theory were false, then this singular resemblance of all animals in bodily structure, & especially in an embryonic condition, these laws of heredity & variation, these curious rudimentary organs could be nothing else but one vast deception created for the express purpose of deceiving one of the greatest faculties of man, that of reason.
What has evolution to say to these facts?
Looking around us we see the general laws of heredity everywhere coming into play[,] viz that offspring inherit at corresponding periods of life the characteristics of their parents, but at the same time are never absolutely like either each other or their parents.
Granting this, the evolutionist maintains that progress is inevitable and that starting with a low form of life it was absolutely necessary that a state of things very similar to what is at present must have been brought about.
For by the law of ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ or ‘Natural selection’ it is easy to see that any profitable variation would be retained, owing to the better chance that creatures having this variation would have, in the ‘Struggle for existence’. And as there would be many ways in which profitable variations would occur, so, many variations would be retained & in course of time would obliterate the intermediate links of less fortunate forms.
In this way in nature, it might take thousands of generations of individual differences to produce a well-marked variation & tens or hundreds of thousands of generations to produce what may be classed as distinct species.
Much longer periods of time would be necessary for the production of distinct genera & so on, but when we consider what Geology teaches us in respect to the length of time life has been on the earth, we cannot doubt that geological periods have been suffic[i]ent for the divergence from one original stock to be great enough to produce the distinct families & even orders & classes of to-day.
This being so, we see that the resemblance of the anatomy of different creatures & the presence of rudimentary organs was a necessity, & that as the variations are mainly inherited at a corresponding period of life, the embryo must suffer the least change.
There is a vast difference between the reasoning capabilities of man & those of the higher apes, but when we compare the great progress of the brain even in historic periods with the slow alteration in bodily form, we ought not to be surprised that man’s brain differs so greatly, & his bodily form so little from that of the higher apes.
Now if we could pass in review the ages, & tracing the steps of time, see the gradual improvement of our ancestors, is there any special period at which we should be willing first to give them the title of man?
What is to be our definition of a man?
We shall, I think, be not far wrong, if we define man as one who uses a weapon or tool.
The chimpanzee does crack nuts with a stone, but takes the nut to the stone, & not the stone, but takes the nut to the stone, & not the stone to the nut, which makes a considerable degree of difference; monkeys of course learn to imitate man in the use of a weapon, but that is not the same at all.
I think we may be fairly certain that as soon as the animal used a weapon or tool, his brain power & also his hand would begin soon to develop; for he who was cleverest at selecting branches or stones, or best at using them would survive, and not necessarily he that was strongest; and accordingly through natural selection these characteristics would be increased at† time went on.
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This is the theory of evolution which it is not too much to say will be remembered as the greatest thing of this century just as the discoveries of Newton were the greatest things of his century.
What effect has it had upon our views of every thing.
1stly upon our views concerning the lower animals.
With regard to them it seems to me that not enough stress is laid upon what we are necessarily bound to believe concerning them owing to the theory of Evolution. Since man differs from them in no fundamental degree, we are bound to acknowledge that every law which holds good for man, & that every hope which he has, must also to a certain extent, at any rate, be true for the lower animals.
2nd with regard to our views concerning man.
At the beginning of the century & back through the ages the belief was fairly constant, that man was declining, they looked back on the men of the past as superior to themselves, their thoughts turned back to the ‘golden age’; their object was to make their age not so very much inferior to that preceding it; all this is changed now; we still have a few people who are wont to tell us that the world is going to the bad, & who regret the absence of the good old times of yore; but the numbers of people who will listen to them grows daily less & less, & even the pessimist will hardly deny that the world as a whole is progressing.
Most of this change of feeling if not all of it is due to the introduction of the theory of Evolution; for when we acknowledge the theory, it is but natural to suppose that man having progressed so rapidly in the ages of the past, is still progressing to-day; the belief in the superiority of the past was caused mainly by the view (which the theory of Evolution has shown to be erroneous) that man was originally created almost, if not quite, perfect.
This brings us to the subject of the bible.
Before the introduction of the theory of E. the belief was almost general that the bible was literally word for word inspired.
Now as the theory teaches us that creation was very different from what one would naturally gather from the bible account, we must admit at any rate that it is useless to base any ancient historical fact on the teaching of the Old Test. since the bible account may well lead us to believe things quite contrary to what really took place.
But the greatest divergence is perhaps in the theory of the ‘Fall of Man’.
According to the bible account man was created perfect & fell; according to E he has gradually increased in intellectual & moral capabilities till he has reached his present condition.
Which, I say, is the view most likely to lead to courage & perseverance in the highest endeavours to improve the human race, the view that man’s ancestor was an animal & that the race has progressed up to the present state & is progressing still, & every endeavour helps to make that progress more rapid, or the belief that man’s ancestor was almost if not quite perfect, & that partly owing to the original fall & partly owing to steady decline ever since man has reached his present low condition, & that every endeavour to help the human race is merely one to try & regain some of the lost ground, to put off a little longer if it may be the destruction of the sinking ship.
I say steady decline ever since for undoubtedly till the present century this was the belief of the majority; the men in successive stages of the bible were worse & worse, & throughout later history the retrograde movement had been slow but steady & sure.
According to men of the last century & indeed to some left among us to day, the view they held of the redemption in Jesus Christ was linked to that of the ‘fall of man’ in the following manner: –
Man having been created by God perfect, having fallen & sinned was doomed naturally by the infinite justice of God to an eternal damnation, but God in His infinite mercy was willing to accept the sacrifice of His Son, ‘who was tempted but sinned not’ in the place of humanity. Thus then the Vicarious Atonement was necessary for the salvation of man; and the infinite justice of God was reconciled to sinful man by the sacrifice of One who was innocent, & who since the sacrifice was for multitudes of humanity & was retrospective as well as prospective, must have been himself infinite.
Granting the fall of man & that the infinite justice of God would without sacrifice to appease sin be bound to place man in eternal torment, we see that it was necessary for them if they were to believe in any hope for humanity at all, to hold this view of the atonement.
What has the theory of Evolution to say to this? It seems to my mind to have taken away the foundation stone from the whole theory.
For if there was no fall, & if, as we have a right to believe, God made man imperfect in order that he might continue to progress we feel that He would not be infinitely just if condemning to eternal perdition those whom he had originally created imperfect, simply because they were imperfect.
Thus then the necessity for the belief in the Vicarious Atonement is gone.
What are we to have in its place?
Surely the Redemption is the redeeming of mans† character from sin, & the Atonement, the at-one-ment with God which Jesus Christ has taught man by his life & death. It brings man to God, but needs not to bring God to man.
Let us now look at the difference the Theory of E has caused in our views concerning God.
Men said originally that the Theory of E would upset the belief in the power of God.
But let us place side by side the 2 views and see which represents to our feeble gaze the Omnipotence of God in its greatest light. According to the old view about 6000 years ago the astronomical bodies, the earth, men & the animals were created, the latter at least of imperfect minds & even cruel instincts, & all have continued for that period in much the same condition.
According to the modern view life on this planet began ages upon ages ago & has gradually developed through stages of improvement till it has reached the present condition.
Which is the greatest, the creation of everything nearly as it is now, in one short period of time, or the great plan of E, the vast intricacies of which are only shown to be greater the deeper the study of them is carried?
Some indeed in tracing back the vast plan of life have found in it something so infinitely grand, that they have supposed that of itself and by itself it has existed from all eternity.
But is not their attitude that which would be taken up by men who looking upon a masterpiece of machinery in working order & seeing no hand at work, should consider its parts to be so exquisite as to owe their existence to their own inherent perfection, & not to the brain or work of man at all.
The greater the masterpiece the further back must we be prepared to go before we shall find the original hand at work.
For those who can still believe in God the view of His Omnipotence can be but heightened by the Theory of E.
But more than this, we have gained what is much greater still, a higher conception of His infinite love, the great truth for which Jesus Christ lived and died. Instead of a God who needs to be reconciled to sinning humanity by the death of one,† innocent; we have the belief that the death of Christ was & is the cause of bringing man nearer to God.
Instead of an angry God who condemned to eternal torture those who could not hold certain beliefs, or (according to some) even those who had not had an opportunity given them of believing in them, we hold that God grieves over his sinning child, & we return to our belief in the truth of the parable of the prodigal son which represents God as a Father going forth with joy to meet the repentant prodigal.
All this I maintain to be due largely to the indirect effects of the teaching of Evolution.
Lastly we look forward with different hopes for the future, from those of men of previous centuries.
For the race we look forward to a future of steady progress onward & upward.
And for the individual too, we look forward to continued existence of improvement, till every creature which God in His infinite power has created, shall be won over to God by His infinite love, & as ages upon ages pass away shall draw nearer & nearer to the line of infinite perfection, holiness & love.
This paper was read to the Cambridge University Nonconformist Union during Easter term 1892, Lawrence’s second term at Cambridge. His involvement with the Union may owe something to the jurist C. S. Kenny, its president about this time, for Kenny was a friend of Lawrence’s uncle Edwin Lawrence (D. W. Bebbington, ‘Unitarian Members of Parliament in the Nineteenth Century: A Catalogue’, Supplement to the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, xxiv, no. 3 (Apr. 2009)). Lawrence addressed the same organisation four years later on ‘The Treatment of Animals’ (see 5/27).