The Shift that Wasn’t: C. S. Lewis and Bernard Acworth

Part 2 of a series of posts sifting conflicting claims about Lewis’s views on evolution.  Part 1 is here.

An Acworth Shift?  Captain Bernard Acworth, born 1885, was a British submariner in World War I.  He had strong opinions on bird and butterfly migration, evolution, physics, and other topics, which he published in a number of books.  In the 1940s he wrote to C. S. Lewis, who had become famous during the war for the BBC radio addresses later anthologized as Mere Christianity. Lewis politely declined Acworth’s advice to “henceforth include arguments against Evolution in all my Christian apologetics” (Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. II, 633).

Captain Bernard Acworth

Acworth copy

Acworth had already published a whole book attacking evolution (This Progress, the Tragedy of Evolution, 1934) and tackled the subject in other works as well (e.g., This Bondage, 1929).  To him, as to some Creationists today, evolution wasn’t just wrong: it was the wellspring of all our ills, “an unalloyed evil which accounts for the present bankruptcy of civilization” (Bondage, 333).

Although Acworth’s side of the correspondence has been lost, in 1996 scholars Gary Ferngren and Ronald Numbers reprinted everything relating to science and religion from Lewis’s side of the correspondence. (These letters also appeared eventually in the three-volume Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis.)  Lewis’s letters, they believed, showed that under Acworth’s influence he had undergone a “gradual shift toward antievolutionism, only stopping short of Acworth’s outright Creationism.” Acworth’s son stated a version of this view upon handing over the originals of Lewis’s letters to Queen’s University, Ontario, in 2012.

Some readers might welcome such a shift on Lewis’s part and some might not, but the first question is whether it ever happened.

“It has Shaken Me . . .”  In 1951 Acworth sent Lewis an anti-evolutionary manuscript, asking the prestigious apologist to write an introduction for it.  Ferngren and Numbers say,

Lewis seems to have been favorably impressed upon reading Acworth’s unpublished attack on evolution. “I must confess,” he wrote on September 13, 1951, “it has shaken me.”

But Lewis’s sentence does not end there, despite the period inside the closing quotation mark: he went on to say that he had not been shaken in his “belief in evolution,” but—well, somehow:

It has shaken me — not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders.

In these two convoluted sentences Lewis avoids committing himself on the factual merits of evolution or Acworth’s arguments against it.  He professes himself shaken in his “belief that the question was wholly unimportant” (so, is it just not very important?) and “inclined to think that you may be right” (but does he “incline” all the way to actually thinking that Acworth may be right?), and this not because of Acworth’s arguments (aren’t they good ones?) but because of the bad attitudes of evolution’s defenders (which aren’t relevant to any real scientific question).  This expertly equivocal passage is an encouraging back-pat for Acworth, but commits Lewis to nothing more than quivers of emotion.

Ferngren and Numbers, having quoted this passage, go on to say that Lewis’s

later correspondence [with Acworth] suggests that he had begun a gradual shift away from his earlier unquestioning acceptance of evolution, but had stopped short of adopting Acworth’s antievolutionist stance.

This is a major point of intellectual biography, if true, yet they point to no specifics in the later correspondence to support it.  They couldn’t have, for those letters (there are three with relevant content, in 1953, 1959, and 1960) show no traces of any “gradual shift,” such as a progression of ever-more-vehement blasts against evolution.  Indeed, they do not discuss the merits of evolutionary biology at all.  In 1953 Lewis expresses his hope that Creationists will not invalidly exploit the exposure of the Piltdown Man fraud (though he adds that he would find it “fun” if it were “the beginning of a landslide”); in 1959 he decries the “suspicious disingenuousness of orthodox biologists” (a milder expression than the “twisted and fanatical attitudes” of 1951); and in 1960 he derides the metaphysical speculations of Teilhard de Chardin.  None of this suggests a “gradual shift” away from some “earlier unquestioning acceptance of evolution.”  In fact, Lewis’s take on evolution was anything but “unquestioning acceptance” prior to 1951.  Besides the claim in his first letter to Acworth of prior belief of the “vaguest and most intermittent kind,” marginalia (described here) show an atheistic, 19-year-old Lewis enthusiastically marking up a book attacking the logic of natural selection, and years later, as a Christian writer, he worked out an elaborate theistic-evolutionary tale of human origins in The Problem of Pain (1940) and denied natural selection’s ability to explain the origin of human reason in Miracles (1948).

C. S. Lewis

C S Lewis

Late Flirtations with Evolution.  The claim that Lewis underwent a gradual Acworth Shift that only stopped short of Creationism is contradicted by several favorable post-1951 references in his writings to evolution, especially its common-descent aspect.  When revising Miracles for a 1960 edition, Lewis let stand one passage in which he mentions evolution without qualification as an example of what “we know” (Touchstone edition, 1996, 22-23) and another in which he speculates extensively on the Incarnation as revisiting evolutionary history by participating in human embryonic recapitulation  (147-148). He got the latter notion by reading Windows on Jerusalem, by Sister Penelope CSMV, in 1944: “I must thank you again,” he wrote to her, “for putting into my mind the very important point about the sub-human, embryonic incarnation of Our Lord” (Collected Letters Vol. II, 624).  The idea that so excited him was explicitly evolutionary: as Sister Penelope put it, “The Eternal Son began at the beginning with the single cell and, as we all do, recapitulated the entire evolutionary process on the way to birth, touching and renewing life on every level” (ibid). (The idea that total evolutionary recapitulation occurs during embryonic development has had no scientific standing for generations, but was passable pop science in 1944.  A history of recapitulation theory is given in Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977.)  In 1952, months after supposedly being “shaken” by Acworth, Lewis told Sister Penelope that he “had pictured Adam as being, physically, the son of two anthropoids, on whom, after birth, God worked the miracle which made him Man” (Collected Letters Vol. III, 157), the same theistic-evolutionary compromise with common descent that he had proposed in 1940 in The Problem of Pain.  And as late as 1962 or 1963 he referred to his own possible “pre-human” embryonic past (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964, 79), apparently still intrigued by the theological implications of common descent.  None of this sounds like a man just “stopping short” of full-blown Creationism.

“Evolutionary Hymn.”  Ferngren and Numbers cite one text to support their view that “Lewis’s later writings reveal his belief that evolutionism had become a theological creed,” a verse from Lewis’s 1957 poem “Evolutionary Hymn”:

On then! Value means survival–
Value. If our progeny
Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
That will prove its deity
(Far from pleasant, by our present
Standards, though it well may be).

The citation is curious because one need not go to Lewis’s “later writings” to find him skewering the ideology of “evolutionism”—he did so repeatedly in the 1930s and 1940s. Ferngren and Numbers appear to cite  “Evolutionary Hymn” because they think it supports the existence an Acworth-triggered slide toward Creationism, but Lewis explicitly and repeatedly distinguished “evolutionism” the ideology from “Darwinism as a theorem in biology.” Thus the quoted verse does not spurn evolution per se but only evolutionism as already attacked in much earlier writings, most notably his science-fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet (1938).  In 1946, commenting on the rantings of that book’s mad-scientist character Weston, Lewis said he had written to pillory

the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and that this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it — of pity, of happiness, and of freedom (“A Reply to Professor Haldane,” 1946, in Of This and Other Worlds, ed. W. Hooper, Collins, 1982, 100.)

If anything, then, “Evolutionary Hymn” illustrates Lewis’s tendency to stick to a consistent idea over decades, not to shift or drift — the idea in this case being his hostility to “evolutionism,” not to biological evolution.  The theme recurs clearly in 1938 (Weston’s defiant speech to Oyarsa), 1946 (“Reply to Professor Haldane”), and 1957 (“Evolutionary Hymn”).

Acworth as Science Critic.  Is it likely that Acworth’s scientific arguments were of a caliber to influence Lewis?  Not very.  Acworth knew a little about a lot, a lot of the little he knew was wrong, and he had supreme faith in the power of Reason (his own), unencumbered by expert knowledge, to arbitrate far-flung questions of biology, physics, and technology.  In This Bondage (1929) he explained that, as any intelligent layman can clearly see, aircraft will never reliably travel long distances. (The 1928 flight of the Southern Cross from California to Australia had been a mere fluke, he said: lucky winds.) Also, “Einstein’s theory . . . demands ‘ether’ in which light waves can travel” (false), light travels at an infinite velocity in vacuum (false), and a vacuum is an “insulator of electro-magnetic waves” (false).  On evolution, he served up traditional Creationist talking points (fossil gaps, etc.) that were  probably already familiar to Lewis, spicing them with his own brand of hysteria: “The goal of evolution, through psycho-analysis, is moral degradation; through organised mass birth-control, and sterilisation, extinction; and through its social creed of communism, revolution” (Progress, 115-116).  Sadly and in short, Acworth was, at least as regards his scientific opinions, a crank.

The Clincher.  We know that Lewis did not always mean for his letters to would-be Christian allies to be taken at face value.  Six years before his oft-quoted “shaken” letter to Acworth, he advised Christian apologists confronted by an “embarrassing supporter” — someone who advances dubious arguments on behalf of Christianity — to sidestep the factual issues while pointing to third-party disapproval as the apologist’s primary reason for not entering into an alliance:

It is brutal (and dangerous) to repel him; it is often dishonest to agree with what he says. I usually try to avoid saying anything about the validity of his argument in itself and reply, “Yes. That may do for you and me. But I’m afraid if we take that line our friend here on the left will say etc. etc.” (“Christian Apologetics,” 1945, in God in the Dock, ed. W. Hooper, 1970, 100.)

This pretty closely describes the 1951 letter in which Lewis refuses to write a preface for Acworth’s new anti-evolution book:

Many who have been or are being moved towards Christianity by my books wd. be deterred by finding that I was connected with anti-Darwinism. I hope (but who knows himself!) that I wd. not allow myself to be influenced by this consideration if it were only my personal concerns as an author that were endangered. But the cause I stand for wd. be endangered too. When a man has become a popular Apologist he must watch his step. Everyone is on the look out for things that might discredit him.

Given his explicitly articulated “embarrassing supporter” policy, Lewis’s apparent concessions to Acworth read plausibly as a species of two-faced tactical management, not sincere affirmation. (I don’t say the policy is admirable in either theory or execution, but there it is.)  Further evidence that Lewis was merely handling Acworth is his 1951 letter to Warfield Firor, written about three months after the “shaken” letter:

Have you ever  heard of Captain Bernard Acworth R.N., a distinguished submarine commander in World War I and a v. good Christian of the Evangelical type — but his head absolutely buzzing with Bees?  He was with me the other day explaining that the whole American-English-UNO [United Nations Organization] set up is absolutely fatal and part of a plot engineered (so far as I could make out) by the Kremlin, the Vatican, and Jews, the Freemasons and — subtlest foe of all — the Darwinians.  So I suppose you must be in it too. (Collected Letters Vol. III, 150.)

Here, Lewis treats Acworth and his views on evolution as a laughing matter.

We might also ask if it is plausible that Lewis, who openly asserted belief in miracles, the family headship of Christian husbands, and tempting demons, would have shied away from attacking evolution if he thought it demonstrably and harmfully false — indeed, “the central and radical lie” of our day — merely because (as he claimed to Acworth) such a stance would have been used by critics to his discredit.

What Did Lewis Think?  On the poetical or imaginative side, Lewis seems to have been rather attracted to the idea of evolution, or at least to its common-descent aspect.  In Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles,  and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer he wove evolutionary concepts experimentally into Christian belief, with interesting results.   “Darwinism as a theorem in biology” is nothing (he said) for Christians to worry about, though the pseudo-scientific philosophy of “evolutionism” is: we must beware “the illegitimate transition from the Darwinian theorem in biology to the modern myth of evolutionism or developmentalism or progress in general” (essay written 1952, published 1960 in The World’s Last Night, 101).  Lewis did even blame the “theorem” for the “myth,” noting that the myth came first, in literature, by many years. Hence, he said, he was “not in the least concerned to refute Darwinism as a theorem in biology” (ibid).

Yet on the same page he hinted heavily of his hope that Darwinism-as-a-theorem-in-biology might be about to collapse scientifically.  (This is not evidence of a post-1951 Acworth Shift, though: he had indulged in similar hinting in the 1940s. See “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Christian Reflections, 83.)

We have, then, evidence that Lewis was imaginatively attracted to at least one aspect of evolution; repelled by others; never “unquestioning” in his acceptance of the scientific view, and vaguely desirous of some alternative; dead set against the non-scientific ideology he called “evolutionism”; and adamant that Christianity can coexist, if necessary, with Darwinism-as-a-theorem-in-biology.  All of these elements appear and reappear in essays, books, and letters penned over decades.  There seems no evidence of a trend in any definite direction; in particular, no evidence of a late-life slide toward near-Creationism.

Lewis was neither a Creationist nor a straight-up, thoroughgoing affirmer of modern biology.  His views on the subject were idiosyncratic, hybrid, and avowedly uncommitted.  He does not fit into any of today’s usual camps — which is neither here nor there as regards the truth of evolutionary biology or any part of it, of which Lewis (as he said himself) was no judge.  There is no more intrinsic significance in  having Lewis “on your side,” whether that side is Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, or any other, than in having Albert Einstein on your fencing team.  The relevant expertise just isn’t there.  I do not know of any evidence that Lewis ever, for example, even read The Origin of Species.

Yet contemporary commentators struggle for control of the Lewis image. More on that subject in my next.

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Question, challenge?  Leave a comment!

 

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  • Clarke Morledge

    This is a great post.

    I am not sure if you have seen the relatively new video put out by the Discovery Institute on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNNUPN3-WeM

    I find it very intriguing, but also confused by it: Lewis was pro-Darwin…no wait a second… he was anti-Darwin…. no wait a second….. he was publicly pro-Darwin, but became privately anti-Darwin?…. no wait again…. huh? You get the idea.

    Having a little bit more of the background concerning Acworth really helps to put things in perspective. I always have to keep my hand on the side of the pool before just diving in blindly with the folks at the Discovery Institute.

    Thanks!