Theory of evolution

Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionEvolution of human beings over millions of years from ape-like ancestors

In 1859, a British man called Charles Darwin published a book called 'On the Origin of Species'. This book was based on his studies of creatures he had encountered on his travels to many overseas locations, including the Galapagos Islands. He put forward the theory that all living creatures that exist today, including human beings, have evolved over a period of perhaps millions of years, from more primitive life forms to how they are today by a process of natural selection.

Darwin was a natural science graduate of Cambridge University and a geologist. He was also a Christian. Darwin did not intend to challenge religious beliefs with his book but many religious believers responded to it with fury. These reasons included:

  • The theory of evolution seemed to go against religious teachings that God made the Earth and created all living things, as they knew them.
  • Christians believed that God had created humans 'in his own image', that humans were superior to all other creatures and had a soul that is immortal.
  • The theory of evolution challenged the idea that God is the designer of the universe and that the beauty, order and complexity of the universe is evidence of this (the design argument).
  • The idea that living things adapt to their environment was opposed to their belief that God had created the perfect environment for them.
  • The Bible says humans were created on the sixth day of creation, not over a period of millions of years.

These scientific theories were first put forward in the 19th century, when Christianity was an important influence on people's lives and the way they thought. Many people saw them as a direct attack on their faith. Charles Darwin faced criticism from people who could not accept what they saw as his 'anti-religious' ideas.

Is the theory of evolution compatible with Hinduism?

Some Hindus do not agree with the theory of evolution for the following reasons:

  • Lord Vishnu will have a role in evolution, rather than it being left to chance.
  • The existence and importance of the atman is not addressed and without it, there is no life.
  • It contradicts Hindu creation stories, if they are taken literally.

However, many Hindus have no issue with evolution theory for the following reasons:

  • Brahman generates life on Earth through Brahma and Vishnu. Evolution is one of many ways it happens.
  • Vishnu is evident in evolution just by the fact that life continues and is strengthened.

Dharma

Hindus believe in karma or 'intentional action'. Many Hindus believe using ‘God-given’ talents to improve or save life is positive action and some would say that following a career in medicine or scientific research is the dharma of those who have the ability to do so.

Hindus who are scientists do not often find it difficult to balance their faith and their work. They believe that scientific principles such as testing and analysis are not at odds with Hindu principles such as respect for life and always aiming to do good.

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