Charles Darwin, John Calvin, and the Short-Horn Cattle

Guest Post by David N. Livingstone

It’s Monday afternoon. Robin Noonan at Johns Hopkins University Press has asked me if I’d like to write a guest blog post about a book I recently published with the Press titled Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Encounters with Evolution. And I’ve now a few minutes to think about it.

So, I casually key the terms “science and religion” into the Google Search Engine just to see what shows up. First item, posted just an hour ago. It’s a news update. “Not-so-Big Bang: Religion and Science Clash in Committee.” It reports a meeting of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee following a decision by the Israeli Ministry of Education to include further discussion of evolution in religious public junior high schools. Across the globe, it seems, the relationship between science and religion continues to make news headlines.

In circumstances like these, it’s tempting to lapse into caricature and to presume closure on just what is going on in confrontations of this stripe. It’s easy to substitute the monochrome of stereotype for the Technicolor of real life and to take for granted which side the angels of true enlightenment are on. What such presumptions obscure is the complexity of the conversations that have taken place over matters of science and religion. And that’s precisely what I wanted to get at in Dealing with Darwin.

My tactic was to follow one fairly discrete religious tradition—Scots Presbyterianism—and to inquire into its dealings with Darwin in a range of different settings. What I discovered was something rather arresting. Often what looked like a debate about science and theology, about Genesis and geology, about secular knowledge and ecclesiastical dogma, turned out to be about all sorts of other things: race relations, the politics of education, textual criticism, cultural identity and the like. In short, the location of debate, the venues of encounter, shaped the rendezvous between Darwinian science and Calvinist culture.

Sometimes too the happenstance of personal geography exerted enormous influence. Let me illustrate. around 1900, Benjamin Warfield was perhaps the greatest of the Old School theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also widely regarded as the leading modern architect of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Given these biographical particulars, it comes as a surprise to learn that Warfield insisted that John Calvin’s doctrine of creation was, and I quote him, “pure evolutionism.” To Warfield, Calvin’s understanding of how matter underwent a series of transformations, along with his conception of how all forms of life came into being, revealed it to be “a very pure evolutionary scheme.” As for himself, though he came to have serious doubts about certain forms of Darwinian absolutism, Warfield described himself during his student days as a “Darwinian of the purest water.”

Two life-locations were crucial to Warfield’s thinking about evolution. First: Warfield grew up on a stock breeding farm in Kentucky. His father was one of the most respected breeders of short-horn cattle in the United States and acquired a major reputation for his book on The Theory and Practice of Cattle-Breeding. Darwin’s name was laced into the fabric of the book as William Warfield called on his authority on such matters as variation, atavism, natural selection, and reversion to type. Son Benjamin retained a life-long interest in the short-horn culture and kept up to date with the latest breeding lore. This afforded him the opportunity—I’d hazard a guess that it was unrivaled among systematic theologians—to stay abreast of the science of animal husbandry. Small wonder that he confessed, at one point, that he knew his “Origin of Species and Animals and Plants Under Domestication, almost from A to Izard.”

What further fueled Warfield’s favored brand of evolution was the distinctive perspective on the new biology cultivated by several leading evolutionists at Princeton University. Chief among these were the leading vertebrate palaeontologist William Berryman Scott and the geologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, who subsequently became President of the American Museum of Natural History. Both of them cultivated distinctively non-Darwinian versions of evolution with a strongly orthogenetic accent. With such viewpoints circulating around the Princeton campus, Warfield felt entirely justified in “evolutionising” John Calvin, even while throwing doubts on the all-sufficiency of Charles Darwin.

This case alone challenges the prepackaged history that trades in the currency of inevitable conflict between science and religion. That it can be repeated many times over raises the suspicion that the warfare myth survives in large measure because it serves the interests of apologists of one stripe or another. What’s needed are far more discriminating accounts of how scientific theories fared within particular communities in particular venues, accounts that take much more seriously how place, politics, and poetics shaped, and continue to shape, science-religion conversations.


livingstoneDavid N. Livingstone is a professor of geography and intellectual history at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is author of Dealing with Darwin: Place Politics and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution, along with Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins, also published by Johns Hopkins.  To hear New Books in Science, Technology, and Society’s interview with David Livingstone, click here.