The myth of popular evolutionism
In his essay, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis wrote:
To the biologist Evolution […] covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions. […] It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements. (Christian Reflections 85)
Lewis then brilliantly expounded on what he called “popular evolutionism,” which is the idea that “small or chaotic or feeble things perpetually turn themselves into large, strong, ordered things” (90).
Popular evolutionism tells a compelling story that competes with the true creation myth of Genesis, thus becoming a myth itself. In this myth, against all odds, organic life springs forth from the mindless movement of matter. The “infant hero” survives against impossible obstacles; it rises up, becoming amoeba, reptile, mammal, and finally, a “cowering biped.” The biped takes up flint and club to become Cave Man, savage and afraid of the gods of his imagination. Finally he becomes true Man, mastering science and putting off the superstitions of his youth. In the last act, Man is a demi-god, judiciously employing eugenics to maintain the perfection of his race.
The myth does not end there, Lewis warned. In the end, the sun grows cold and the universe runs down. Life is snuffed out, and “all ends in nothingness.” Lewis concluded that the myth is “much better than an Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us not to the end of a story, but to all possible stories” (88).
We should note that popular evolutionism feeds on, but was not begotten by, the biological theory of evolution, which simply describes how gene frequencies change over multiple generations within a given population. Lewis wrote, “[i]n making [the Myth] Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence. ‘The prophetic soul of the big world’ was already pregnant with the Myth” when Darwin first published his theory. In other words, evolution readily filled some pre-felt need in society (84).
Popular evolutionism has some convenient features which have nothing to do with the biological theory. For instance, consider the idea that “everything is becoming everything else: in fact everything is everything else at an earlier or later stage of development” (91). Accordingly, Lewis wrote, “you can regard all the nasty things (in yourself or your party or your nation) as being ‘merely’ the undeveloped forms of all the nice things: vice is only undeveloped virtue, egoism only undeveloped altruism, a little more education will set everything right” (92). This materialist doctrine is alive and well today, and it will continue to thrive as long as the concept of sin seems quaint and unsophisticated in our culture.
Lewis appreciated the power of popular evolutionism, but he rejected it as a false myth. The biological theory of evolution has emerged from thousands of inferences about observed facts, each arrived at through human reason. According to the myth, however, reason itself is “the unforeseen and unintended byproduct of a mindless process” (89). If randomness and chance can account for the existence of reason, as the naturalist asserts, then we have no reason to believe that the logical inferences that produced the theory of evolution in the first place make any sense.
Intelligent Design: science or religion?
Today, the intelligent design movement similarly rejects popular evolutionism but goes further than Lewis by also rejecting the biological theory. The architects of the movement seek to provide a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution by suggesting evidence, independent of any particular religious ideology, of an intelligent “Designer.”
Along with theistic evolutionists like Lewis, intelligent design proponents reject metaphysical naturalism in favor of the existence of a higher, supernatural power. Whereas most theistic evolutionists are committed to methodological naturalism, however, intelligent design theorists are not: they believe supernatural explanations are fair game in science.