C.S. Lewis On the Myth of Evolution

Lewis1If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis you’ll know he was a genius. I’m currently reading Christian Reflections, which are essays and addresses he gave about assorted topics. When he gets into full on genius mode I have to reread a passage numerous times to try to understand it, and often even then I can’t fully grasp what he’s trying to say. I know it’s profound, but I can’t seem to wrap my brain around it. At other times when I can get what he’s saying, his insights can be breathtaking, and strangely enough obvious.  One piece in the book with many such insights is an essay called, “The Funeral of A Great Myth,” that being the Myth of progress, of evolution metaphysically considered. The facts of the science of evolution are not the point, but rather how the imagination extends and distorts the meaning of evolution all beyond its ability to predict.

Many of us would think that evolution gave rise to the Myth, given that we’ve come to define the term evolution with wholly positive implications. In fact evolution scientifically speaking simply means change, whether that be good or bad, positive or negative or neutral, assuming there is even an objective standard by which we can judge it. But the Myth was well underway by the time Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859. The 18th and 19th Centuries were heady days when scientific progress become mythologized way beyond science itself. This is what Lewis is getting at in the following:

The Myth knows none of these reticences (of actual science). 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’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things–perhaps Deity itself–in the remote future. For in the Myth, ‘Evolution’ (as the Myth understands it) is the formula of all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’. To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that the chaos should turn into order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world drams which we have every imagined.

As an atheist, the Myth was one Lewis grew up believing until he was 30 years old when he finally could no longer deny that the Myth could never hold up in the cold light of reason. He wrote this essay at some point in the 1940s and even then argued that the Myth had lost its fundamental plausibility and would in due course be rejected. Little did he know that science itself would increasingly make a random, meaningless, chance universe almost completely implausible less than 70 years after he wrote these words, as Eric Metaxas argues in his now famous Wall Street Journal article. But Myths die hard, and he implores us to respect it even as we seek to refute it.