Saturday, 1 March 2008

Darwin’s Revenge

Tierra del Fuegians greeting HMS Beagle. Watercolour by Conrad Martens. Image from Wikipedia

Joel Kontinen

Montezuma’s Revenge is a colloquial name given to a variety of illnesses mostly caused by bacterial infections that many tourists suffer from when visiting Mexico. The name is derived from the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II (c. 1466-1520) whom the Spanish conquistador Hernándo Cortés defeated.

While Montezuma’s Revenge might have obnoxious consequences, such as diarrhea, vomiting and fever, history knows of a more severe form of revenge. Have you ever heard of Darwin’s Revenge?

Montezuma’s Revenge has practically nothing to do with Montezuma. But Darwin’s Revenge is an altogether different story, and a more severe one.

In his youth, Charles Darwin used to pray. As a young man he even planned to become a clergyman. But Darwin gave up his intention of taking holy orders and on his historical journey on the HMS Beagle (1831-1836) he read the first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology that had just been published and later also became acquainted with the second volume.

Like James Hutton, Lyell rejected the biblical timescale of earth history and espoused the idea of millions of years instead. Hutton was the father of uniformitarism or the idea that the present slow and gradual geological processes are the keys to understanding the past history of the earth. Darwin found inspiration in Lyell’s ideas.

By the time of the Beagle’s voyage Darwin no longer trusted in the Old Testament and soon afterwards also lost his faith in the New Testament. Then in 1851 Darwin’s 10-year old daughter Annie died of fever. Like many other skeptics after him, misfortune caused him to abandon biblical Christianity altogether. For instance, the actor Dana Andrews (1909-1992) lost his faith when his two sisters died suddenly. Darwin could not understand that God could so mercilessly take away his daughter.

Darwin obviously failed to understand how a good God could allow evil things to happen to people he thought were innocent. Abandoning the Bible’s explanation of the world, he made up a great story of his own in which the struggle for existence and the survival the the fittest played major roles. While the idea of evolution had its roots in Greek philosophy, Darwin was the first to associate it with natural selection, a concept he borrowed from Edward Blyth (1810-1873), a well-known zoologist and chemist.

What Charles Darwin failed to realise was that we no longer live in the original very good world but on a planet that is groaning because of mankind’s sin, as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:21-22. Darwin was well aware of William Paley’s book Natural Theology. Paley’s argument for design was popular in Darwin’s time but it was not able to account for the presence of evil and sin in the world.

Darwin’s rejection of historical Christianity had disastrous consequences. Darwin’s views caused many others to abandon the biblical worldview and brought about or encouraged evils like racism and eugenics that were a corollary of his ideas. This confirms a biblical truth. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, deeds always have consequences. The same truth seems to apply to ideas.

We cannot do much to escape Montezuma’s Revenge when we visit Mexico the first time. But the good news is that we do not have to be infected with Darwin’s Revenge. There is a remedy for it – the gospel of Jesus Christ. By knowing Him "you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32).


Brentnall, John M. & Grigg, Russell M. 1995. Darwin's slippery slide into unbelief. Creation 18:1, 34–37.

Humanist profile: Dana Andrews. The Humanist 62:4, 2 (July/August 2002).

Read more about our fallen world here.