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Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
The Heavenly Origin of Evolution

Natural selection viewed as logical extension of widely-accepted nebular hypothesis

By Ron Numbers

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex historical narrative, I would like to argue that the history of evolution did not begin in 1859 with Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” but with the publication in 1796 of Pierre Simon Laplace’s so-called nebular hypothesis. In 1798, Laplace, a distinguished French mathematician and astronomer, first suggested that the planets were created from the atmosphere of the sun, which, because of its heat, originally extended beyond the orbit of the most distant planet. As this atmosphere condensed, it abandoned a succession of rings—similar to those of Saturn—in the plane of the sun’s equator. These rings then coalesced to form the various planets, similar to the way satellites or moons developed from planetary atmospheres.

Later, after William Herschel, a German-born British astronomer discovered interstellar clouds of dust and gas, called nebulae, Laplace argued that the primitive condition of the solar system resembled a slowly rotating hot nebula. This speculation attracted little attention in the English-speaking world before the 1830s, when several books brought it to the attention of the reading public.  It featured significantly as the beginning of the evolutionary account in the sensational “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” (1844), an anonymous work that introduced the idea of evolution, inorganic and organic, to tens of thousands of readers.

By the 1840s and 1850s, the nebular hypothesis was being taught in American colleges and embraced by leading biblical scholars as describing God’s method of creating the solar system. Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary, arguably the most influential American theologian in the middle third of the century, concluded the first verses of Genesis “clearly intimated that the universe, when first created, was in a state of chaos, and that by the life-giving, organizing power of the spirit of God, it was gradually moulded into the wonderful cosmos which we now behold.” For him, development from preexisting material clearly fell “within the Scriptural idea of creating.” The solar system may have been created by natural laws, but they were God’s laws.

By 1859, large segments of American Christians—one contemporary estimated a half—accepted the scientific evidence for an evolved solar system, as well as the great antiquity of life on earth. They had come to think of creation not in six days but over immense periods of time. And, just as important, they had become convinced that science required explaining natural phenomena naturally, not miraculously.

Not surprisingly, a number of the early proponents of Darwinism appealed to the successful accommodation of the nebular hypothesis to justifying accepting organic evolution. Brown University biologist A. S. Packard, for example, noted that the acceptance of the nebular hypothesis led almost directly to the question of “whether plants and animals share in their process of evolution.” Numerous others, scientists and clergy alike, made much the same point. For such people, as geologist Clarence King observed, Darwinism was simply the last link in the chain of evolution that began with the nebular hypothesis.

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Ron Numbers is a prominent scholar on the history and relationship of science and religion, having co-edited two anthologies on the subject. He is a 2008 recipient of the History of Science Society’s George Sarton Medal. Numbers currently is Hilldale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Please see the Resources section for the Bibliography/Additional Reading list for this essay.