C.S. Lewis at Magdalen College (Photo by © Norman Parkinson Achive/Iconic Images/Getty Images)
Photo by © Norman Parkinson Archive/Iconic Images/Getty Images
John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Why C. S. Lewis Doubted the Creative Power of Natural Selection

Published at Evolution News

Editor’s note: To mark the release on November 3 of the new C. S. Lewis biopic, The Most Reluctant Convert, we are running a series of articles exploring C. S. Lewis’s views on science, mind, and more.

SPECIAL LIMITED-TIME OFFER: Get a FREE chapter exploring C. S. Lewis’s views of intelligent design from the book The Magician’s Twin

C. S. Lewis knew that the truly momentous feature of modern evolutionary theory is not its proposal that life has a long history, nor even its claim that humans and apes share a common ancestor. 

No, the truly radical part of modern evolutionary theory is its insistence that life is the product of an unguided process. 

The claim that evolution is the product of chance and necessity is not just the product of the fevered imaginations of muscular “New Atheists” like biologist Richard Dawkins. It forms the very core of orthodox Darwinian theory, which claims that the primary driver of evolution is an unguided process of natural selection (or “survival of the fittest”) operating on random variations in nature (random mutations, according to modern evolutionists).

Darwin himself repeatedly made clear that evolution by natural selection neither required nor involved intelligent guidance. Indeed, according to Darwin, his theory of natural selection provided a definitive refutation of the idea that the features of the natural world reflected a preconceived design: “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.”

“No Shadow of Reason”

If natural selection was unguided in Darwin’s view, so too were the variations in nature on which selection acted. Objecting to those who claimed that beneficial variations in nature might be the result of intelligent design, Darwin declared: “no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations… which have been the groundwork through natural selection of the formation of the most perfectly adapted animals in the world, man included, were intentionally and specially guided.”

The dominant view of evolution today in the scientific community remains essentially Darwinian. In the words of 38 Nobel laureates who issued a statement defending Darwin’s theory in 2005, evolution is “the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.”

One certainly can conceive of a theory of guided evolution, but mainstream Darwinian theory is not it. Darwinianevolution by definition is an unguided process that brings forth new things through a combination of chance and necessity. But can such a fundamentally mindless and undirected process create the exquisite form and function seen throughout the natural world? Lewis didn’t seem to think so. 

Lewis did affirm that “with Darwinianism as a theorem in Biology I do not think a Christian need have any quarrel.” But for Lewis “Darwinianism as a theorem in Biology” was a pretty modest affair. Contradicting leading evolutionists, Lewis thought the “purely biological theorem… makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements.” 

Nor can Darwinism as a scientific theory explain many of the most important aspects of biology itself: “It does not in itself explain the origin of organic life, nor of the variations, nor does it discuss the origin and validity of reason.” 

So what can the Darwinian mechanism explain according to Lewis? 

“Granted that we now have minds we can trust, granted that organic life came to exist, it tries to explain, say, how a species that once had wings came to lose them. It explains this by the negative effect of environment operating on small variations.” In other words, according to Lewis, Darwin’s theory explains how a species can change over time by losing functional features it already has. 

Suffice to say, this is not the key thing the modern biological theory of evolution purports to explain. 

To Build a Wing

Noticeably absent from Lewis’s description is any confidence that Darwin’s unguided mechanism can account for the formation of fundamentally new forms and features in biology. Natural selection can knock out a wing, but can it build a wing in the first place? Lewis didn’t seem to think so. 

A further indication of just how skeptical Lewis was about the creative power of natural selection appears in a talk he delivered to the Oxford University Socratic Society in 1944. There Lewis stated that “the Bergsonian critique of orthodox Darwinism is not easy to answer.” Lewis was referring to Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a French natural philosopher and Nobel laureate who offered a decidedly non-Darwinian account of evolution in his book L’Evolution Creatice (Creative Evolution).

Lewis first read Bergson in France during World War I while recovering from shrapnel wounds from the front-lines, and the experience on Lewis was profound. In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis said that Bergson “had a revolutionary effect on my emotional outlook… From him I first learned to relish energy, fertility, and urgency; the resource, the triumphs, and even the insolence, of things that grow.”

 Lewis continued to re-read Bergson in the years that followed as he continued his studies at Oxford. During the summer of 1920, he wrote to a friend that he was “reading Bergson now and find all sort of things plain sailing which were baffling a year ago.” A year earlier, he wrote his father that he was living in anticipation of a visit to Oxford by Bergson, but commented wistfully that “I suppose I shall not see [him]… unless he gives a lecture.” The impact of Bergson on Lewis is indicated in Lewis’s 1917 copy of L’Evolution Creatice, which is filled with careful annotations and underlining on most of its nearly 400 pages.

An Unsparing Critic of Natural Selection

Bergson was an unsparing critic of the creative power of Darwinian natural selection. Granting that “the Darwinian idea of adaptation by automatic elimination of the unadapted is a simple and clear idea,” he argued that precisely “because it attributes to the outer cause which controls evolution a merely negative influence, it has great difficulty in accounting for the progressive and, so to say, rectilinear development of complex apparatus” like the vertebrate eye.

Bergson stressed that Darwinism’s reliance on accidental variations as the raw material for evolution made the development of highly coordinated and complex features found in biology nothing short of incredible. This was the case regardless of whether the accidental variations were slight or large. 

As Bergson noted, some Darwinians insisted that the variations used by evolution were so slight that they would not hinder the survival of the organism: “For a difference which arises accidentally at one point of the visual apparatus, if it be very slight, will not hinder the functioning of the organ; and hence this first accidental variation can, in a sense, wait for complementary variations to accumulate and raise vision to a higher degree of perfection.” 

Bergson granted the point, but then noted the problem it raised: “while the insensible variation does not hinder the functioning of the eye, neither does it help it, so long as the variations that are complementary do not occur. How, in that case, can the variation be retained by natural selection? Unwittingly one will reason as if the slight variation were a toothing stone set up by the organism and reserved for a later construction.” But “this hypothesis” is obviously “little conformable to the Darwinian principle,” which emphasizes that natural selection acts mechanically and without foresight.

To get around this problem, other Darwinists claimed that evolution relied on large accidental variations that provided evolutionary leaps. “But here there arises another problem, no less formidable,” wrote Bergson, “viz., how do all the parts of the visual apparatus, suddenly changed, remain so well coordinated that the eye continues to exercise its function? For the change of one part alone will make vision impossible, unless this change is absolutely infinitesimal. The parts must then all change at once, each consulting the others.” Even “supposing chance to have granted this favour once, can we admit that it repeats the self-same favour in the course of the history of a species, so as to give rise, every time, all at once, to new complications marvelously regulated with reference to each other, and so related to former complications as to go further on in the same direction?”

An Incredible Idea

The sheer improbability of the Darwinian explanation increases exponentially once one realizes how frequently the same complex biological features are supposed to have arisen independently in different evolutionary lineages. In the words of Bergson: “What likelihood is there that, by two entirely different series of accidents being added together, two entirely different evolutions will arrive at similar results?” The whole idea was incredible according to Bergson: 

An accidental variation, however minute, implies the working of a great number of small physical and chemical causes. An accumulation of accidental variations, such as would be necessary to produce a complex structure, requires therefore the concurrence of an almost infinite number of infinitesimal causes. Why should these causes, entirely accidental, recur the same, and in the same order, at different points of space and time? 

Responding to his own question, Bergson replied that “No one will hold that this is the case, and the Darwinian himself will probably merely maintain that identical effects may arise from different causes, that more than one road leads to the same spot.” But this was fallacious reasoning: “let us not be fooled by a metaphor. The place reached does not give the form of the road that leads there; while an organic structure is just the accumulation of those small differences which evolution has had to go through in order to achieve it.” Hence, “the struggle for life and natural selection can be of no use to us in solving this part of the problem, for we are not concerned here with what has perished, we have to do only with what has survived.”

To Explain the Eyes

From the extensive annotations Lewis made in his personal copy of L’Evolution Creatice, it is clear that he understood and appreciated Bergson’s critique of natural selection. Lewis aptly summarized the Darwinian mechanism of adaptation according to Bergson as the elimination of the unfit” and noted that it “plainly cannot account for complicated similarities on divergent lines of evolution.” Lewis also noted Bergson’s view that “pure Darwinism has to lean on a marvelous series of accidents” and how Darwinists try to “escape” this truth “by a bad metaphor.” Lewis paid particular attention to Bergson’s critique of Darwinian accounts of eye evolution in mollusks and vertebrates, concluding that “[n]atural selection… fails to explain these Eyes.”

Bergson’s critique of natural selection likely paved the way for Lewis’s doubts about Darwin, and may help explain Lewis’s comment to his father in 1925 that “Darwin and Spencer…. stand themselves on a foundation of sand.” But Lewis’s skepticism toward natural selection was fueled by more than Bergson. 

As I will discuss in a future article, Lewis’s most serious skepticism toward natural selection came in relation to the development of human beings. 

This essay was adapted from “Darwin in the Dock,” Chapter 6 of The Magician’s Twin, edited by John West. For reference notes and sources, please consult the book version.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
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