Did C.S. Lewis believe in evolution?

C.S. Lewis (image source: BioLogos)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of prominent Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis, which will no doubt be overshadowed by the 50th anniversary of something completely different. However, the occasion has not escaped the watchful eye of the Disco Tute, which is using the milestone as an opportunity to tout its latest video project, a “documentary” that will apparently attempt to capture Lewis’ struggle over “intelligent design” — the modern conception of which wasn’t established until nearly three decades after his death.

I have no doubt that Lewis was a full-blown, Darwin-loving evolutionist. He wrote about the subject numerous times and fully incorporated the theory into several of the theological arguments he advances in, for example, “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.” Yes, he certainly expressed doubts, or even outright opposition, toward a purely scientific/materialistic worldview, which he sometimes referred to as “evolutionism” or even “evolution,” though the context of his writing make clear that what he is actually discussing is, essentially, atheism, or what might be called “scientism” today. He makes this distinction clear in his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth”:

The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence,’ just as the central idea in the myth of Adonis is Death and Re-birth. I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth.

Of course, ID proponents are not the only anti-evolutionists who have tried to claim Lewis as one of their own. To my knowledge, every major young-earth creationist organization has as well, just as they’ve tried to claim everyone from Martin Luther to Christ himself.

For just one example, see this essay by Creation Ministries International’s Peter Barnes, which attempts to contort Lewis into a man whose early sympathy toward evolutionary theory was nothing more than the residue that tragically escaped his conversion from atheism. Barnes uses a few choice quotes and a third-person anecdote to demonstrate the evolution became “a growing question” for Lewis later in life (and I’m sure Lewis eventually recanted of the whole business on his deathbed, just like Darwin, right?).

Below, I’ll present a few quotes from his own writing that I think will make Lewis’ beliefs on the subject pretty clear. But first, I have to say that I think these chuckleheads’ postmortem efforts to fit C.S. Lewis into their anti-science mold are enormously insulting to his memory. He was, throughout his life, a devout purist regarding the role of science and the role of philosophy and theology. Had he been aware of it, I am sure that he would have been an enthusiast supporter of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of non-overlapping magisteria. Lewis said as much himself in the opening salvos of “Mere Christianity”:

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. … Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more he would agree with me that this is the job of science — and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes — something of a different kind — this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them.

As such, I think it’s obvious that Lewis would have rejected from the outset the entire premise upon which both creation science and intelligent design are based: namely, that it is possible — from a purely scientific standpoint — to prove the existence of the Christian God.

For more evidence, here’s C.S. Lewis on evolution (emphases mine):

If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection. But it does not follow that the further back you go the more brutal—in the sense of wicked or wretched—you will find man to be.”

For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.

“I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.”
— C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”

Century by century God has guided nature up to the point of producing creatures [humans] which can (if they will) be taken right out of nature, turned into ‘gods.’”

“At the earlier stages living organisms have had either no choice or very little choice about taking the new step [of development]. Progress was, in the main, something that happened to them, not something that they did.
— C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at tyler@godofevolution.com.

  • Thanks for posting this.

    I’ve been noticing the attempts to rewrite history, particularly at the “Uncommon Descent” blog.

    • Unfortunately, historical revisionism and conservative Christianity seem to be pretty close bedfellows nowadays.

      • Michael Brooks

        Amen to that.

  • Andrew Dragos

    Biologos has posted this essay by Michael Peterson on the issue, which attempts to explain some of the “ambiguity” in Lewis (http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/peterson_scholarly_essay.pdf).

    Biola also hosted this debate between Peterson and ID proponent John West (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YJgSFstH6Q).

    • Thanks for the links! BioLogos actually has several excellent and thorough essays (“scholarly” and otherwise) on its website about this specific topic. I believe I’ve read them all and would certainly recommend any of them to anyone who’s looking for further reading on this subject.

  • Kenny Pearce

    It is also worth noting, in connection with Lewis’s remarks about the ‘myth’ of evolution, that Lewis says (in an essay which I believe is entitled “Myth Became Fact”) that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth. What Lewis denies is that myths must be falsehoods. When Lewis talks about the myth of evolution, I take it he means something like ‘an evolutionary story told to make sense of our place in the world and the meaning of our lives.’t. A story need not contain any falsehoods to fail as a myth, nor does it need to contain any historical truths to succeed as a myth, but Lewis holds that the Christian story is a historically true narrative which succeeds as a myth, i.e. as a story that makes sense of our place in the world.

    • Kenny Pearce

      One further point on that: most people who embraced the ‘myth of evolution’ saw it as part of a ‘narrative of progress’ that evolution means things are always getting better and better over time. (There are some Hegelian and/or Marxist overtones here.) My understanding is that today most biologists think that this is a really bad misunderstanding of evolution.

      • Yes, I think you’re right. Evolution, as a purely material biological process, does not have a goal in mind. It’s only ability is to produce creatures that are best suited to survival within their respective environments.

    • Good points! Thanks for sharing.

  • Elwin Daniels

    You have quoted ‘Funeral of a Great Myth’ very selectively. In that essay Lewis does criticise evolution theory and quotes a scientist who admits it is accepted despite lack of evidence as the only alternative, special creation, is unacceptable. And what about his mocking ‘Evolutionary Hymn’ and the Ransom trilogy? Lewis was no YEC but to claim him as a paid up Darwinist is about as fair as usingcthe ‘Darwin deathbed conversion’ canard which as you should know features proominently on lists of ‘arguments creationists should not use’

    • My quoting of “The Funeral of a Great Myth” wasn’t at all selective. Throughout the piece, Lewis draws clear parallels between the scientific theory of evolution and the metaphysical claims some make that go far outside the boundaries of science. Here’s another example from the same essay:

      Again, for the scientist Evolution is purely a biological theorem. It takes over organic life on this planet as a going concern and tries to explain certain changes within that field. It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements. 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. 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. It may well tell you how the brain, through which reason now operates, arose, but that is a different matter. Still less does it even attempt to tell you how the universe as a whole arose, or what it is, or whither it is tending. But the Myth knows none of these reticences. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’.

  • Chris Mason

    Do you have anything in response to this one? Like their claim that he said that evolution was “pure hallucination” or what he said about the chicken and the egg? I’m certain that they’re taking things out of context again, but I thought that I’d go right to someone who has more experience with it for help. Thanks.

    http://creation.com/c-s-lewis

    • Hey Chris, thanks for the message! Out of context, of course. In the quote you mention, as in all — literally, all — of the Lewis quotes that createvangelists use to try and make it seem like he was against evolution, Lewis is, in actuality, arguing against philosophical naturalism, which he sometimes calls evolutionary naturalism, not the scientific theory of evolution. Philosophic naturalism is essentially the belief that there is no God, and hence, the universe and everything in it was self-created and is self-sustained. As a Christian, C.S. Lewis is, of course, opposed to the idea, as am I. But that doesn’t mean we must believe everything is supernatural. Indeed, we believe that a phenomenon, whether it be a rain storm or the beginning of life, can have both a natural explanation and supernatural, divine meaning — both being true, and the explanation not being truly complete without one or the other. So, for example, the answer to “Where does rain come from?” is not simply, “The water cycle,” nor is it simply, “God,” but both.

      I’d encourage you to read Lewis’ essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” if you have time, where I think he makes the distinction I’ve described here pretty clear. Particularly relevant is this excerpt, which I’m quite certain you will never find quoted on Creation.com:

      “The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence’, just as the central idea in the myth of Adonis is Death and Re-birth. I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth.”

      • Chris Mason

        Thanks a lot! And holy crap, I just noticed that, in the article I mentioned, they did use a portion of the quote that you just provided and, of course, they completely stripped it of context. Here’s the relevant portion:

        “I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis.”

        Here’s how they quoted it:

        “Lewis stressed that the doctrine of evolution is ‘certainly a hypothesis’, adding that he has concluded ‘the doctrine of Evolution as held by practicing biologists is … a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago.”’23]”

        Unbelievable. I’m ashamed to admit that there was a time (only a little over a year ago, unfortunately) when I actually respected that site and its writers. There’s a blogger that I subscribe to (astronomer Michael Siegel) who has argued that cherry-picking is one of the worst sins in “mathematical malpractice.” I have to agree with him, as in those cases, someone is willingly ignoring or suppressing contradictory evidence (in other words, lying). To misinterpret something like that, you’d have to be certifiably insane. It wouldn’t surprise me in this case, but I doubt that I’m that lucky.

        • Hey Chris, thanks for pointing this out! I appreciate your trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t see any way that this could be a case of misinterpretation. They’ve taken a quote from C.S. Lewis and omitted a chunk from the middle of it to make it seem as though he’s saying the exact opposite of what he actually said.

          It would be like me saying, “I am completely not in favor of euthanizing senior citizens,” and Jerry Bergman quoting me as having said, “I am completely … in favor of euthanizing senior citizens.”

          I did a little write-up on this today. Check it out, if you’re interested.

          • Chris Mason

            Awesome! Thanks for posting that. I’ll be sharing it to my facebook page. Just for the record, I actually wasn’t giving them the benefit of the doubt. Ordinarily I would, but as you said, it’s blatantly obvious that they did that on purpose. What I was trying to say in the previous post (in retrospect, I could have worded that one better) was that, for example, if someone tried to defend that saying that the author misinterpreted Lewis, my response would be “then Jerry Bergman must be certifiably insane.” But, like I said, I doubt that I’m lucky enough for it to turn out that he is crazy or something (even if that was this case, I’m certain that his friends and followers will just become anti-psychology, if they haven’t already).

  • Yusuf Kaya Kuzu

    I’m surprised you actually posted something from Fabio Paolo Barbieri considering his views on gay marriage and on nature of morality, which, at least in my opinion, are full of sh**.

    • Um, it’s an essay by C.S. Lewis that just happens to be hosted on his site.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        Coward. In my opinion, if anyone had criticized me for publishing anything by anyone – correcty or not – on account of not having the right beliefs, I’d have told him to piss off and come back when he had learned something about free speech.

  • Ty

    C.S. Lewis on materialistic thoughts
    ‘If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e. of materialism and astronomy—are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milkjug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.’

    C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), The Business of Heaven, Fount Paperbacks, U.K., p. 97, 1984.

    • Matthew Funke

      Which only demonstrates how poorly Lewis understood natural selection. A brain that reflects reality well will tend to communicate to its owner in ways that will allow it to survive. A brain that reflects reality poorly could lead to the organism’s poor survival, given that the picture of the environment that it sends to its host organism is corrupted. The brains that humans inherited were already selected by prior brain-having organisms to reflect the world with a relatively high degree of fidelity.

      In other words, selective processes are nothing like upset milk jugs. An upset milk jug leaves a splash that is largely random; selective processes are, by definition, not random.