Dealing With Darwin

LivingstoneOften times we forget the importance of place and time on the way ideas are received and processed. David Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast makes it his business to study the relationship between the way ideas are received and developed as a function of place. One of the (many) highlights of the Evolution and Christian Faith Workshop this summer was the plenary lecture Livingstone gave based on a chapter in his recent book Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution. This is a readable academic book – a scholarly study of the importance of location and local context on the way evolution was received, embraced, or rejected.

“Thoughts routinely travel the world in textual form” but the way in which they are received depends upon the situated location and context of the reader.

The coming together of texts and readers, then, is a moment of creativity in which meaning is made and remade. For the encounter with words on paper is not to be thought of as a passive “consumption” of ideas; it is rather a positioned rendezvous, a situated dialogue, a sited engagement between text and reader. Acts of reading always involve located hermeneutics because readers are always part of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretive communities” sharing some foundational assumptions and exegetical strategies. (p. 5)

Public and private speech also have conventions situated in place. Thoughts and ideas are transmitted in oral as well as written form. Livingstone quotes Theodore Zeldin on the art of conversation with the all important observation that conversation doesn’t just transmit information, it also transforms human minds … “talk is not simply about transfer; it’s about transmutation.” But speech is not free, it is shaped by place in many different ways.

The intimately reciprocal connections between speech and space have far-reaching consequences. Speech spaces shape what can and cannot be said in particular venues, how things are said, and how they are heard. In different arenas there are protocols for speech management; there are subjects that are trendy and subjects that are taboo. (p. 6-7)

Oxford Natural History MuseumThe famous debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a case in point. At the time both Huxley and Wilberforce were viewed by some discourteous, but the confrontation and the reception it received was defined by the space in which it happened and the local conventions for civil speech. The image to the right is of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the debate occurred (although not in this space … rather in a space now occupied by a large number of storage cabinets).

The questions of place, politics, and rhetoric are under-appreciated in many different contexts, not least of which is the way we read scripture today contrasted with the way it was read or heard in the middle ages, by the early church, in the first century, or by the original audiences. There are places, in the writings of Paul for example, where our tendency is to read the meaning as “obviously A” when he was using rhetorical tools of his day to confront contemporary issues and the meaning isn’t really “A” at all, but more along the lines of “α” or “ℵ” or perhaps something completely different (say ⊄). The question of “works” without appreciation of the cultural issues involves in the intermingling of Jews and Gentiles might be one such example. Some will argue that the statements on women provide another such example while others relegate these statements by Paul to the intrinsic ontology category.

Livingstone, of course, covers none of these issues of biblical interpretation, at least not directly. Instead he looks at the way Darwin’s theory of evolution was received in several different faith communities. The opening chapter provides a broad overview of the landscape skimming through a variety of different examples.

In a number of places the reception that Darwin’s theory of evolution received was closely linked to questions of ethnic identity and race. New Zealand is a case in point and Darwin’s theory was embraced willingly. The struggle for survival and survival of the fittest meant the vigorous northern races would inevitably displace the indigenous peoples in New Zealand and elsewhere. This was simply a law of nature – to be viewed perhaps with some disquiet and mild regret as in nostalgia for childhood, but not to be stopped. The American South is another place where race played a large role.

Race did not appear to play a role in the reception in South Africa however. Here Darwin’s theory was challenged on a number of grounds, most significantly moral philosophy with some back and forth. William Porter, the Cape’s former attorney general and first chancellor of the Cape University was troubled by the radical naturalism of Ernst Haeckel.

What disturbed him most was Haeckel’s heartless eugenic rhetoric. Killing off “all sickly, weak, and crippled children” so as “to promote the survival of the fittest” did not exactly warm Porter’s heart. “Christendom,” he proclaimed, “does not kill its sickly, weak, and crippled children. It builds hospitals for them.” How different that creed was from Haeckel’s Darwinian vision of a world characterized by “a pitiless and most embittered struggle of all against all”!

In nineteenth century Russia Darwin’s theory was also received with skepticism and distrust on philosophical grounds. It was widely held that cooperation and mutual aid govern interactions. This was held to be true in the animal kingdom and in human society. In contrast Darwin, Wallace, and Malthus emphasize competitive individualism in nature and in human society.

To dig deeper Livingstone focuses the remainder of the book on the way Darwin was received and dealt with in five different Protestant Calvinist communities in different locations (Scotland, Ireland, Toronto Canada, and two US seminaries in South Carolina and New Jersey). His thesis is that place, politics, and rhetoric were decisive in the way evolution was dealt with in each of these communities. Evolution was rejected, tolerated, or embraced on grounds that had little to do with its scientific validity, and often little to do with central Christian doctrines or truths.

Perhaps knowledge of the experiences of the past and realization of the importance of place and rhetoric can help to shape the way we move forward in the future. Preferably in a constructive fashion.

In what way do place, politics, and rhetoric influence the way religious communities engage scientific ideas today?

What role do they play in debates over evolution? Debates about global warming and ecological crisis?

What lessons should we learn?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see Dealing With Darwin at Jesus Creed.

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