Saturday, July 11, 2009

Charles Darwin Bicentennial

This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin. His The Origin of Species*, first published 150 years ago, can be reasonably be claimed to be the most important book published in the C19th. A book that forever changed how we looked at the world and ourselves.

Indeed, it is hard to underestimate the impact on Western civilization of the theory of natural selection. Conjoined with the discoveries of geology, it overthrew the traditional religious framing of time—time which the ruins of Petra were no longer "half as old as". It broke down a sense of our profound metaphysical separation from other species.

Modern biology is based on two key facts. The first is that all life on Earth is related, we are all part of the same tree of life.

The second is that species change, across time and space. Under the impact of Darwin, the notion that each species was a separate creation, part of a single act of creation a few millennia ago, collapsed.
That species evolved from other species was an idea that predated Darwin. His great achievement was natural selection, a mechanism to explain how such a change could happen. A mechanism he got from economist and pioneer of demographic theory Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population.

Charles Darwin himself was a liberal and humane man who abhorred slavery. Unfortunately, some of his scientific rhetoric—itself flowing from a scientifically exaggerated belittling of cooperation of nature and a concomitant belittling of human motives—encouraged ideological monsters. Both Marxism and Nazism drew strength from some of Darwin's rhetoric, however much that would have horrified Darwin himself.

Philosopher Mary Midgely, in her Evolution as a Religion, has critiqued both the misuse of Darwin's ideas and some of the tendencies flowing from Darwinism. As she wrote:
The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral (p.172).
Philosopher David Stove, a great admirer of Charles Darwin, notoriously critiqued aspects of Darwinism in his Darwinian Fairytales. People can find it difficult to separate evolution and natural selection as an ongoing scientific project from Darwinism, the views originally expressed by Darwin. One can accept that Charles Darwin's scientific achievement was very great, as is clearly so, without thinking he was correct in every particular. Respect (which is certainly due) does not have to be unalloyed.

Darwinism's "reading down" of human and animal motives is not supported by the evidence. Nor is his idea that the sole purpose of sex in nature is to conjoin small gametes (sperm) with big gametes (eggs). Joan Roughgarden, Professor of Biology at Stanford University, provides a very accessible survey and discussion of the evidence on such matters in her Evolution's Rainbow. She also provides a very accessible presentation of the key points of modern biology and evolutionary theory in her Evolution and Christian Faith.

This year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Darwin's work still provokes heated debate and disagreement far beyond that which any other book published in the C19th does. His great scientific achievements, and flaws, still cast an enormous shadow.

* Hyperlinked titles are to my reviews of the books elsewhere on this blog.

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