Which Side Was He On? Enlisting C. S. Lewis in the Evolution Wars

An obscure, slow-motion war is being waged over C. S. Lewis.  Was he a more or less secret foe of Darwin and a proto-advocate of Intelligent Design, long before that school of thought named itself?  Or was he a champion compatibilitist, serenely accepting the validity of modern biology and finding it no ill fit with his Christian orthodoxy? Both views have been urged lately, but before I review a few of the major volleys, I’d like to address the question my wife asked when I described all this to her patient ears: “Why does it matter?”

Why, indeed, does it matter what Lewis thought about evolution?  He never dedicated an essay or book to the subject; one must dig through essays, books, and letters scattered over decades to find his utterances.  That scholars can urge nearly opposite claims about his views shows how little we have from him on the subject.  He died 50 years ago this November.  Why is anyone debating his attitude?

I find the subject personally interesting because Lewis helped shift my own thinking about science radically, once upon a time.  In junior high, I was a fervent Creationist:  I read pamphlets, I knew design arguments, I wrote (as I still wince to remember) argumentative letters to friends and my Bertrand-Russel-worshipping grandfather.  At the same time, influenced largely by Lewis, I felt that one should be fair to the enemy’s arguments: assess them accurately, respond to them logically.  And so I read at least the first fourth or so of the Origin of Species.  Meanwhile, as a fan from early childhood of all things sciencey, I watched Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, National Geographic specials, and Nova and read teetering piles of science-fiction books.  Darwin I found impressive, and the evolutionary assumptions of all the other inputs I’ve named  did their bit to undermine my creationist confidence.

Lewis helped me out of my pickle by offering a bridge from Creationism to a scientific worldview.  That bridge was the “guess,” “myth,” or “not unlikely tale” of human origins he outlined in The Problem of Pain (1940)—not claimed as factual and therefore unthreatening to my wary eyes, yet a serious attempt to grapple with a fundamental issue for Christian orthodoxy:  can the Christian story of the Fall be dovetailed with the apparently very different scientific world-picture of humans evolving from pre-human life through deep time?  Yes, Lewis thought, it could.  His story begins, “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.”  Perfected how?   Lewis does not say, but “long centuries” seemed to me (as I am sure it was) a nod to evolutionary gradualism.  Next, God ensouled and endowed with Reason some unspecified number of proto-humans, transforming them into an unfallen race whose spiritual greatness we cannot estimate from the crudity of their artifacts.  One or more of those unfallen creatures sinned, and so humanity Fell.

When I read this book for the first time, perhaps in nine grade, I was electrically excited by the revelation that there might be a way to preserve my Christian orthodoxy while also giving in to the building pressure to accept deep time, common descent, and human evolution.  One could chuck a literal Adam and Eve, but keep the gist; one could evolve hybrid narratives; one could be, though I did not yet have the phrase, a “theistic evolutionist.”  If Lewis, whose intellectual and emotional lucidity had wowed me to the bone since grade school, said it was possible, then it must be possible.   The door out of my Creationist closet was unlocked, and I could simply walk out—but I needn’t walk out naked.  I could take with me whatever I felt I needed.

Lewis’s “not unlikely tale” is theologically troublesome to me now—and to be clear, I thoroughly accept the mainstream scientific body of evidence-based explanation that is the “theory” of evolution—but I continue to love and respect Lewis. So my own interest in what Lewis really thought about evolution is partly personal.  And partly it is provoked by what strike me as the partial, erroneous, and sometimes partisan accounts of Lewis’s rather oddly-shaped opinions that have been put forward by several writers recently.

In my next few posts I will review three major texts in the tug-of-war over Lewis and evolution:

1) “C. S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944-1960,” by Gary Ferngren and Ronald Numbers (1996).   Numbers may be known to some readers for his admirably non-polemic history of Creationism, The Creationists.  Ferngren and Numbers argue that a series of little-known letters between Lewis and a British Creationist named Bernard Acworth show that Lewis, under the pressure of Acworth’s arguments, underwent “a gradual shift away from his earlier unquestioning acceptance of evolution, but . . .  stopped short of adopting Acworth’s antievolutionist stance.”

2) “C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design,” by Michael L. Peterson, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 2010 62(4): 253-266.   Take-home claim: “Lewis never voices any objection to the scientific facts of Evolution as though they are somehow incompatible with orthodox Christian doctrines—and, in fact, he was completely comfortable integrating Evolution into a comprehensive worldview.”

3) “C. S. Lewis and Intelligent Design,” by John G. West, in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, John G. West, ed., Discovery Institute Press, 2012.  (You can score a free copy of West’s essay here.)  Take-home claim: “Although we do not how Lewis would have viewed the modern theory of intelligent design because he is no longer with us, we do know how Lewis would have responded to many of the standard arguments against intelligent design—because he responded to these same arguments when dealing with the issues of his own day.”  Lewis is on the ID side, point by point, right down the line.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions about “how Lewis would have viewed the modern theory of intelligent design.”

All these accounts are wrong in important ways, as I will show from Lewis’s own words.

But still—why does it matter?  Why are people even fighting about this stuff?

All battles over what some long-dead but highly-regarded figure said, or would say today if we could only pull them out and make them talk—as Woody Allen produced Marshall MacLuhan from behind a signboard in Annie Hall—are implicit appeals ex hominem, from the quality of the man.  (Forgive my pidgin Latin; I intend an opposite to ad hominem, the fallacy of answering an argument by insulting the arguer.)  Lewis is very, very loved: his books have sold well over 50 million copies.  If one can say, in effect, “Lewis is on my side,” one brightens one’s aura—even though in mere logic that fact has no bearing on what is at issue between the creationists and the scientists.  Whether Lewis thought A or B is irrelevant to whether we should think A or B:  we can, and indeed must, decide for ourselves.  But controversies of this sort are not conducted solely by the rules of logic. The fight over what Lewis thought about evolution is not about science but about creds, mojo, and juju.

Ferngren and Numbers, though they conjure a biographical mare’s nest out of a few phrases that can be more parsimoniously explained in other ways, are the least polemical or shine-seeking of the three sources I will be considering. Neither Ferngren nor Numbers is a well-known Creationist: for all I can tell, neither of them is a Creationist at all.  They therefore do not seem to gain anything for some cause of their own by arguing that Lewis drifted from “unquestioning acceptance of evolution” into severe doubts.  Peterson and West, on the other hand, are partisans (well-spoken partisans, but still).  I am partisan too, of course, but with this intended difference: I want to describe Lewis as he actually was, without fear or favor.  The picture that emerges is not a comfortable fit to any of our presently common positions, including my own.