john henry newman`s view of evolution

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John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is well known for An Essay on the Development of Christian
Doctrine (1845), while Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is famous for On the Origin of Species (1859).
Although many Victorian theologians and ecclesiastics attacked Darwin’s theory of evolution, this
essay shows that Newman considered evolution compatible with Christianity.
* Ryan Vilbig is a graduate student in physics at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.
In 1859, almost fifteen years after John Henry Newman’s publication of An Essay on the
Development of Christian Doctrine and reception into the Catholic Church, Charles Darwin published
his monumental work On the Origin of Species, in which he argued that species evolved through a
process of variation and natural selection. In both published works and personal correspondence,
Newman expressed his opinions about the merits of evolution in light of both philosophical
considerations and the Roman Catholic understanding of Revelation. Newman’s comments reveal a
unique perspective on evolution as it was first understood by a pre-eminent Christian thinker in the
years immediately following Darwin’s publication.
Today, unfortunately, historians of science only seem to remember the debate in 1860 involving
evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895 and the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, Samuel
Wilberforce (1805-1873), who mockingly asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his
grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Unlike such contemporaries, Newman
appears to have found Darwin’s theory to be generally satisfactory and in no way contradictory to the
teachings of the Church. In the twenty-first century, when evolutionary biologists casually argue that
“the God Hypothesis is unnecessary,”1 Newman’s writings on evolution are of particular interest as
they offer multiple insights into how evolution may be harmonized with and even point to the existence
of a Creator-God.
In considering the relationship between theology and evolution, it is also important to note that
Darwin himself left room in his theory of evolution for a Divine Cause, as is evident from the oftquoted concluding sentence of his Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed by
the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful
and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.2
Given that Darwin personally saw no necessary contradiction between his theory and the existence of a
Creator, one may wonder why so many religious leaders to this day object to the theory of evolution
and why so many atheists continue to argue that evolution is necessarily a God-less process?
Newman’s View of the “Darwin Theory”
Newman’s first known reference to Darwinian evolution is found in a letter dated 26 June 1863.
This initial reference, although somewhat ambiguous, suggests that Newman found Charles Darwin’s
theory to be a useful explanation for the process of change in general. In the course of discussing the
possible establishment of an Oratorian House at Oxford, Newman applied Darwin’s theory of natural
selection to the process of different houses vying for dominance as a new lodging for Catholic students
at Oxford:
[Y]ou might have several lodging houses. And house might run against house, and, on the
Darwin theory, the stronger specimen prevail. If Mr A. or Mr B. or Mr C. set up a lodging
house, it would be soon seen who were fitted for their post, who not. And then, you would
advance to one large house, instead of three small ones.3
Unlike many other clergymen of his day, Newman readily incorporated Darwin’s theory into his
thought and language. Newman even saw natural selection applicable to human society. As his
reflections about evolution developed further, he gradually put forth certain distinctions that needed to
be made if evolution was to be applied to human culture, but he seems to have ultimately found the
theory of evolution to be philosophically sound as applicable to both biological and societal realities.
Newman’s next known mention of the “Darwin theory” appeared in a journal entry dated 9
December 1863, four years after Darwin’s original publication. This entry provides a more substantial
account of Newman’s opinion. In contrast to some of his religious contemporaries who asserted that
God created rocks embedded with fossils, Newman argued that fossils along with morphological
similarities are in fact strong evidence in favor of evolution:
There is as much want of simplicity in the idea of the creation of distinct species as in that of
the creation {of} trees in full growth <whose seed [[is]] in themselves>, or of rocks with fossils
in them. I mean that it is as strange that monkeys should be so like men, with no historical connexion between them, as [that there should be] <the notion that there was> no history <course>
of facts by which fossil bones got into rocks. The one idea stands to the other idea as fluxions to
differentials. Differentials are fluxions with the element <condition> of time eliminated. I will
either go whole hog with Darwin, or, dispensing with time & history altogether, hold, not only
the theory of distinct species but that also of the creation of fossil-bearing rocks. If a minute
once was equivalent to a million years now relatively to the forces of nature, there would be little difference between the two hypotheses. If time was not, there would be none: that is, if the
work of creation etc. <(varied as)> α F. T. force being indefinitely great, as time was indefinitely small.4
In this diary-entry, Newman’s ideas on evolution seem to take shape. First, Newman suggested that
evolution is indeed a satisfactory explanation of fossils and the similarities between humans and apes.
Further, he saw evolution in many ways to be equivalent to an instantaneous creation of species:
evolution requiring an indefinitely large amount of time, instantaneous creation requiring an
indefinitely large force of nature. But both of these processes suggest an Omnipotent Agent, who is
able to supply respectively the force or the time required for the creation of the world.
The next available statement by Newman about evolution was in a letter responding to a book
that Newman received: The Darwinian Theory of the Transmutation of Species Examined by a
Graduate of the University of Cambridge, authored by Robert Mackenzie Beverley (1798-1868) and
published in 1868.5 The editors of Newman’s correspondence note that he only read the preface and
supplementary chapter of the book, the rest of his copy being uncut; the central thesis of the book,
however, can be gleaned from a sentence in the preface, namely, “a view of Nature taken as the
production of the Creator’s will, can never be made to harmonize with the blind force of cellular tissues
sprouting by accident into all the phenomena of life.”6 The book ended with an appeal to William
Paley’s famous “Argument from Design,” arguing that the complexities seen in biological life required
for their creation a direct intervention by the Creator against the laws of nature. Beverley sees this as
definitive disproof of Darwin’s account of blind chance as the mechanism behind the development of
biological life.7
Even prior to Darwin’s publication, Newman had rejected Paley’s argument on theological
grounds. In The Idea of a University, published in 1858—the year before Darwin’s Origin of Species—
Newman evaluated the argument advanced by Paley:
Physical Theology, then, is pretty much what it was two thousand years ago, and has not
received much help from modern science: but now, on the contrary, I think it has received from
it a positive disadvantage,—I mean, it has been taken out of its place, has been put too
prominently forward, and thereby has almost been used as an instrument against Christianity.8
Newman’s reason for discounting the argument from design was based on the fact that a person by
dwelling on design might become convinced that God would never change his marvelous works.
Newman seems to have wanted to caution individuals against praising the intricacies of God’s works as
immutable, since God retains the ability to alter them further; thus, a physical theologian who fails to
recognize the inherent mutability of creation might despair that God’s design has been destroyed
whenever creatures change:
[T]he God of Physical Theology may very easily become a mere idol; for He comes to the
inductive mind in the medium of fixed appointments, so excellent, so skilful, so beneficent,
that, when it has for a long time gazed upon them, it will think them too beautiful to be broken,
and will at length so contract its notion of Him as to conclude that He never could have the
heart (if I may dare use such a term) to undo or mar His own work; and this conclusion will be
the first step towards its degrading its idea of God a second time, and identifying Him with His
works. Indeed, a Being of Power, Wisdom, and Goodness, and nothing else, is not very different
from the God of the Pantheist.9
Newman’s reaction to Paley’s argument from design may then have pre-disposed him toward an
acceptance of Darwin’s theory. After receiving a copy of Beverley’s book in defense of the argument
from design, however, Newman made his thoughts on evolution in opposition to Paley even more
explicit. A letter dated 22 May 1868, to Canon John Walker (1800-1873) of Scarborough, who had
arranged for Newman to receive a courtesy copy of Beverley’s book, stated in part:
I do not fear the theory [of evolution] so much as [Beverley] seems to do—and it seems to me
that he is hard upon Darwin sometimes, which [sic] he might have interpreted him kindly. It
does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago,
gave laws to matter. He first created matter and then he created laws for it—laws which should
construct it into its present wonderful beauty, and accurate adjustment and harmony of parts
gradually. We do not deny or circumscribe the Creator, because we hold He has created the self
acting originating human mind, which has almost a creative gift; much less do we deny or
circumscribe His power, if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind
instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it. If
Darwin in this or that point of his theory comes into collision with revealed truth, that is another
matter—but I do not see that the principle of development, or what I have called construction,
does. As to the Divine Design, is it not an instance of incomprehensibly and infinitely
marvellous Wisdom and Design to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago,
which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects
which He from the first proposed. Mr. Darwin's theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true
or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill. . . . . [A]t first
sight, I do not [see] that ‘the accidental evolution of organic beings’ is inconsistent with divine
design— It is accidental to us, not to God.10
The essence of Newman’s defense of theistic evolution was his contention that God “gave matter such
laws as by their blind instrumentality, [they] moulded and through innumerable ages the world as we
see it.” He further noted that the human mind is itself a distinct act of Creation, ensouling a body that
was constructed in an evolutionary way—thereby making the human body the crowning product of
evolution. Clearly, Newman rejected Beverley’s contention that accidental evolution is incompatible
with design, indeed, he even saw evolution as an instance of “incomprehensibly and infinitely
marvellous Wisdom and Design.” Nonetheless, in spite of Newman’s favorable opinion of the theory, it
is also clear from this letter that he was open to the possibility that evolution might turn out to be false.
Since Newman entertained the idea that the evolutionary disposition of matter may indeed be a
“certain law [given] to matter millions of ages ago,” one should next consider a definition of natural
selection, in order to see how this process achieves the “effects which [God] from the first proposed.”
In doing so, evolution is seen as a teleological principle, insofar as it yields beings adapted for the
purpose of surviving in their environments. As Darwin stated in Origin of Species, natural selection is
“the preservation of a large number of individuals, which varied more or less in any favourable
direction, and of the destruction of a large number which varied in an opposite manner.”11 In the course
of this process of variation and natural selection, Darwin argued that species “will be exposed to new
conditions, and will frequently undergo further modification and improvement; and thus they will
become still further victorious, and will produce groups of modified descendants.” 12
Evolution in Newman’s Grammar of Assent
If variation and survival achieve the effects that God has proposed for creation, one would
expect that evolution should yield creatures internally coordinated and well-adapted to the environment
they inhabit; in other words, species that have favorable adaptations should abound. In his Grammar of
Assent, Newman seems to have recognized the capacity of the evolutionary process for yielding
creatures that are essentially designed by a continuous process of selection, suiting all creatures for the
end of survival:
It is a general law that, whatever is found as a function or an attribute of any class of beings, or
is natural to it, is in its substance suitable to it, and subserves its existence, and cannot be rightly
regarded as a fault or enormity. No being could endure, of which the constituent parts were at
war with each other. And more than this; there is that principle of vitality in every being, which
is of a sanative and restorative character, and which brings all its parts and functions together
into one whole, and is ever repelling and correcting the mischiefs which befall it, whether from
within or without, while showing no tendency to cast off its belongings as if foreign to its
nature. The brute animals are found severally with limbs and organs, habits, instincts, appetites,
surroundings, which play together for the safety and welfare of the whole; and, after all
exceptions, may be said each of them to have, after its own kind, a perfection of nature.13
In this passage, Newman’s acknowledgement that “mischiefs” may befall creatures compares well with
Darwin’s observation that creatures may vary in the opposite of a favorable direction. Creatures that
possess mischievous parts and lack adaptations for self-preservation, according to Newman, could not
“endure.” In other words, natural selection has chosen those creatures endowed with properties that
contribute to the “safety and welfare” of the species. Newman seemingly suggested that God has been
achieving His proposed design by gradually allowing creatures to accumulate those features which
contribute to their well-being. However, it should be made clear that these “mischiefs” are in no sense
errors outside of the Providence of God, because, in Newman’s words, “He gave matter such laws as by
their blind instrumentality moulded and through innumerable ages the world as we see it.” Indeed,
Newman suggested that even species that are not victorious in natural selection possess a kind of
perfection in their natures, in that their bodies are working toward "subserving their existence," which
is their natural end and the result of the elegant physical laws that govern their material bodies.
Indeed, many scientists later recognized that the evolutionary process possesses a certain
teleology by which the accumulated adaptations of animals contribute to the preservation of the
species. For example, the American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888) observed in 1874:
We recognize the great service rendered by Darwin to natural science by restoring teleology to
it, so that instead of having morphology against teleology, we shall have henceforth
morphology married to teleology.14
Natural selection, therefore, calls forth order from nature and gives direction to its primordial chaos.
Every biological organ preserved through natural selection has the teleological purpose of contributing
to the “safety and welfare” of the individual.
Another issue raised by evolution is causation in nature, as many biologists following Darwin
began to claim that chance was the only explanation for biological variation. This can be seen in the
very text of Origin of Species, where Darwin pointed out that the mechanism of variation in the
offspring of biological life-forms was unknown:
Our ignorance of the laws of variation is profound. Not in one case out of a hundred can we
pretend to assign any reason why this or that part differs, more or less, from the same part in the
From such speculations, many biologists came to believe that chance is the cause of variation. But
Newman was emphatic in stating that chance is ultimately not a cause; as he stated in a letter, dated 10
November 1873, to a Catholic biologist, St. George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900):
I am not so well satisfied with your own hypothesis . . ., I mean the hypothesis that chance
variations are the ultimate resolution of the phenomenon, which meets our eyes, of distinct
species. Of course, chance is not a cause.16
As already mentioned, Newman held that the true cause of variation was that matter was given certain
laws such that it had the potency for change, or in his own words, that “[God] first created matter and
then he created laws for it—laws which should construct it into its present wonderful beauty, and
accurate adjustment and harmony of parts gradually.”
To Newman, the very fact that variation is continuously occurring in nature suggests that it must
be caused by a certain law or a suspension of a law of nature. In his Grammar of Assent, he provided a
lengthy exposition on causation in nature:
But, it may be urged, if a thing happens once, it must happen always; for what is to hinder it?
Nay, on the contrary, why, because one particle of matter has a certain property, should all
particles have the same? Why, because particles have instanced the property a thousand times,
should the thousand and first instance it also? It is primâ facie unaccountable that an accident
should happen twice, not to speak of its happening always. If we expect a thing to happen twice,
it is because we think it is not an accident, but has a cause. What has brought about a thing
once, may bring it about twice. What is to hinder its happening? rather, What is to make it
happen? Here we are thrown back from the question of Order to that of Causation. A law is not
a cause, but a fact; but when we come to the question of cause, then, as I have said, we have no
experience of any cause but Will. If, then, I must answer the question, What is to alter the order
of nature? I reply, That which willed it;—That which willed it, can unwill it; and the
invariableness of law depends on the unchangeableness of that Will.17
From such considerations, it is apparent that a fundamental change in nature can only occur because of
a Will altering the order of nature in view of achieving a particular purpose. The fact that changes in
species have occurred multiple times in the course of natural history seems a clear indication that this
law of variation was given by the Divine Will to the world of nature in such a way that the initiation
and inhibition of such a change can only be affected by that very same Will; thus, God continues to
govern the natural world toward its destiny.
In his Grammar of Assent, Newman also maintained that we are bound to believe that
everything has a cause which cannot be reduced to chance:
The assent which we give to the proposition, as a first principle, that nothing happens without a
cause, is derived, in the first instance, from what we know of ourselves; and we argue
analogically from what is within us to what is external to us. One of the first experiences of an
infant is that of his willing and doing; and, as time goes on, one of the first temptations of the
boy is to bring home to himself the fact of his sovereign arbitrary power, though it be at the
price of waywardness, mischievousness, and disobedience. And when his parents, as
antagonists of this wilfulness, begin to restrain him, and to bring his mind and conduct into
shape, then he has a second series of experiences of cause and effect, and that upon a principle
or rule. Thus the notion of causation is one of the first lessons which he learns from experience,
that experience limiting it to agents possessed of intelligence and will.18
Applying this principle to variation in species, it seems reasonable to conclude that this process too was
instituted through the will of an intelligent being, since all of our other experiences of the world concur
with this explanation. Thus one sees that both variation and selection are compatible with divine
design: variation being caused by the laws governed by God’s will and selection being employed by
God such that creatures are teleologically geared for the purpose of survival. In effect, Newman
presented a compelling case that evolution has yielded the results that God proposed from the start.
Some have objected that in the course of evolution, many monstrous and cruel creatures have
emerged that utterly preclude the existence of a beneficent Creator. For example, in a letter to Asa
Gray, Charles Darwin wrote:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created
the parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of
caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice.19
Such natural evil, for Newman, however, presented no difficulty to the Christian worldview, because
the very world in which we live is one to which we have been exiled for punishment: “The aspect
under which Almighty God is presented to us by Nature, is (to use a figure) of One who is angry with
us, and threatens evil.”20 Newman also contended that the only satisfactory explanation for such
cruelties in nature is the Biblical fall of man from a state of grace:
The real mystery is . . . that [evil] should ever have had a beginning. Even a universal restitution
could not undo what had been, or account for evil being the necessary condition of good. How
are we to explain it, the existence of God being taken for granted, except by saying that another
will, besides His, has had a part in the disposition of His work, that there is a quarrel without
remedy, a chronic alienation, between God and man.21
Thus, in a Christian perspective, the world in which we live is a reflection of this chronic alienation,
which includes the seemingly cruel realities of biological life; such cruelties do not preclude a
beneficent and omnipotent Creator, rather they simply point to a just One.
Human Uniqueness
Another one of the major contentious points between proponents of evolution and interpreters
of scripture deals with the origin and uniqueness of man. Newman’s discussion of this topic differed
pointedly from that of his contemporary Samuel Wilberforce. Newman acknowledged that the
morphological similarity between man and apes suggests an historical connection. Compared with
other creatures, though, Newman recognized that any account of the origin of man must explain certain
distinguishing human features—chief among them rationality:
We call rationality the distinction of man, when compared with other animals. This is true in
logic; but in fact a man differs from a brute, not in rationality only, but in all that he is, even in
those respects in which he is most like a brute; so that his whole self, his bones, limbs, make,
life, reason, moral feeling, immortality, and all that he is besides, is his real differentia, in
contrast to a horse or a dog.22
As already mentioned, Newman attributed this rationality to the distinct creation of the “self acting
originating human mind.” Despite these distinguishing characteristics, Newman recognized that there
may arise a conflict between a scientific conception of the origin of man and the scripturally revealed
account. Specifically, he noted that if “there were half a dozen races of men, and that they were all
descended from gorillas, or chimpanzees, or ourang-outangs, or baboons” that this would conflict with
the biblical account “that there were no men before Adam, that he was immediately made out of the
slime of the earth, and that he is the first father of all men that are or even have been.”23 Despite these
potential conflicts, Newman was certain that “philosophical discoveries cannot really contradict divine
revelation”24 and thus if evolution is true it must be shown to agree with the biblical truths about man.
Newman further explored this topic of the evolutionary origins of man in a letter, dated June 5,
1870, to E. B. Pusey (1800-1882), Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford:
Does Scripture contradict [Darwin’s] theory?—was Adam not immediately taken from the dust
of the earth? ‘All are of dust’—Eccles iii:20—yet we never were dust—we are from fathers.
Why may not the same be the case with Adam? I don’t say that it is so—but if the sun does not
go round the earth and the earth stand still, as Scripture seems to say, I don’t know why Adam
needs be immediately out of dust—Formavit Deus hominem de limo terrae [God formed man
from the dust of the earth]—i.e. out of what really was dust and mud in nature, before He made
it what it was, living. But I speak under correction.25
Again, Newman offered a resolution to the apparent conflict between evolution and creation, by
suggesting that Scripture must be carefully interpreted: the true meaning of the text seems to allow for
a mediate generation of Adam’s body from dust through the intermediary of a parent species.
It seems clear from these examples that Newman did not see evolution as threatening the
Christian faith. By arguing that evolution presupposes the laws of nature and that the causation
underlying all natural laws presupposes a will, Newman saw the necessity of God in Darwin’s
hypothesis; in other words, for Newman, Darwinian evolution presupposed the existence of a Creator.
Along with some of his contemporaries, Newman viewed natural selection as a useful principle
employed by God for forming creatures for the purpose of survival and so perfecting their natures.
Finally, a careful interpretation of the scriptural passages on human creation leaves open the possibility
of man having descended from a father species. Perhaps Newman’s view on evolution may best be
summarized by the concluding lines of his letter of June 5, 1870, to E. B Pusey. In response to the
controversy surrounding the conferment of an honorary degree on Darwin at Oxford in June, Newman
commented: “Darwin does not profess to oppose Religion. I think he deserves a degree as much as
many others, who have had one.”26 Evolution as a theory may or may not be true, but in either case, for
Newman, evolution was not incompatible with Christian faith.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 68.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2007), 432; italics
added; hereafter cited: Origin
John Henry Newman [JHN] to William Monsell (The Oratory, 22 June 1863), The Letters and
Diaries of John Henry Newman 20: 479-480; hereafter cited: LD.
JHN, The Philosophical Notebook of John Henry Newman, edited by E. J. Sillem (New York, NY:
Humanities Press, 1969), 158; italics are in the original; the sigla indicate the following: <> = addition
made by Newman either above the word or between the lines; [] or () = punctuation by Newman; [[]] =
additions by Sillem; {}= additions by Vilbig.
Robert Mackenzie Beverley, The Darwinian Theory of the Transmutation of Species (London:
James Nisbet & Co., 1867); available at:
Ibid., v..
In regard to Newman’s views about the argument from design see Patrick J. Fletcher, “Newman and
Natural Theology,” Newman Studies Journal 5/2 (Fall 2008): 26-42; Edward Jeremy Miller, “Newman
on the Tension between Religion and Science: Creationism, Evolution and Intelligent Design,”
Newman Studies Journal 7/1 (Fall 2008): 5-19.
JHN, The Idea of University, 450-451; available at:; hereafter cited: Idea.
Idea, 454.
JHN to J. Walker of Scarborough (The Oratory 22 May 1868), LD 24: 77-78; italics in original.
Origin, 202.
Origin, 321.
JHN, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 348; available at:; hereafter cited: Grammar.
quoted in Étienne Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality,
Species and Evolution (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2009), 99.
Origin, 131.
JHN to St. George Mivart (The Oratory, 10 November 1873), LD 26: 384; italics in original. See
Mark S. Burrows, “A Historical Reconsideration of Newman and Liberalism: Newman and Mivart on
Science and the Church,” Scottish Journal of Theology 40 (1987): 399-419.
Grammar, 71-72.
Grammar, 66.
Charles Darwin to Asa Gray (Down, 22 May 1860), in Francis Darwin, editor, Charles Darwin:
His Life told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of his Published Letters,
(London: John Murray, 1908), 236.
Grammar, 391.
Ibid., 398.
Ibid., 282.
Ibid., 257.
Ibid., 258.
JHN to E. B. Pusey (The Oratory, 5 June 1870), LD 25: 137-138, at 138.

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