Happy Darwin Day 2011!

February 12th, 1809.

Two individuals are born an ocean apart, in vastly different economic settings.  One, an American, is born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky (just west of the old Colonial realm).  The other, a Englishman, is born in Shropshire, England, to a prominent doctor, himself the son of a major 19th Century intellectual, and the daughter of a prominent British pottery maker.  These individuals, of course, are Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

Although Darwin and Lincoln never directly corresponded, the two share more than a common birth-date.  Both were considered to be lazy during their formative years. More importantly, both were ardent abolitionists.  Lincoln grew into abolitionism from a more neutral position, ultimately issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.  Lincoln, is remembered as much for the American Civil War as he is for ending slavery in America.  Charles Darwin became an abolitionist as a result of both first-hand experience and, possibly, family upbringing (the Wedgewoods were well-known British abolitionists).

Darwin and Lincoln, then, share a common historical legacy.  Both rejected slavery, Darwin for moral reasons, Lincoln perhaps for both moral and pragmatic reasons.  However, the two individuals are remembered differently by the general public.  Lincoln is often praised (at least in Northern America) for his decisive moves to both preserve the American nation through the Civil War and for ending American slavery.  Darwin, however, is condemned in many circles for his role in decentralizing the biological status of the human species through his theory of Descent with Modification by means of Natural Selection.

Does Darwin deserve to be condemned?  By publishing his theory, Darwin was not attempting to unilaterally destroy theism.  The Origin was published in a wider intellectual and historical context that already included multiple texts advocating “evolutionary” thought. Some famous predecessors to the Origin include Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and Lamarck’s evolutionary model (first documented in 1800).  Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also published an evolutionary account of life in a book titled Zoonomia during the 1790s.  Natural Selection, then, was born into an intellectual scene which was already used to theories of evolution.  However, Darwin and Wallace’s Natural Selection had one feature that Lamarck, Chambers, and Erasmus Darwin’s work lacked: a working mechanism.  Therefore, Darwin (and to a lesser extent in the public realm Wallace) are remembered (wrongly) by many as the first evolutionists.  As a result, they are most often condemned for the idea of evolution.

Although evolutionary theory DOES have major implications for theology, evolutionary theory does not, in fact, disprove religion.  If one takes an extreme reductionist approach to theology and philosophy, evolutionary theory can be used in an attempt to reduce philosophy and theology to a mere consequence of physical and chemical forces.  However, as religious belief is a non-disprovable hypothesis (God could be out there, regardless of whether evidence exists for or against God’s existence), it is impossible to disprove God through mere science.  In fact, some theological positions incorporate both a relatively traditional conception of God and evolutionary theory.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not have an issue with evolution; they accept evolution as valid science, yet they also retain a role for creative acts by God.  Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God provides a good example of one Roman Catholic biologist attempting to achieve a harmonious relationship between God and evolution, and is a worthwhile read.

Another key criticism of Darwin and evolution is that it creates social ills.  Evolutionary theory has been blamed for racism, the Holocaust, abortion, crossdressing, and numerous other things by its opponents.  However, such an approach is philosophically and scientifically unsophisticated.   Nuclear weaponry utilizes physics, so does that mean that Newton, one of the fathers of modern physics, is responsible for nuclear proliferation? Of course not! If I tried to make that statement, any sane person would (rightly) declare me to be a fool.  Scientific theories are not moral or immoral.  By nature, they do not have a moral stance (they are amoral).  They can be used for moral or immoral means, but a scientific theory, on its own, does not have a moral position.  Therefore, to blame evolution for society’s ills is at best an attempt to put a bandage on an underlying cause.  Darwinian theory is not, in itself, responsible for its application within society (for good causes or bad).  Yes, evolutionary theory was developed by human agents operating in specific places and times.  Therefore, there is an inherent human aspect to evolutionary theory. However, this human aspect is present in ALL scientific theories.  It is not the scientific theory that is the issue. It is how people choose to use it for extrascientific purposes.

Therefore, its time for society to stop condemning Darwin.  If you’ve got a problem with something in society, stop trying to blame people who are at best indirectly related to the root of the problem and actually attempt to fix the issue.  Let’s remember Darwin for what he actually DID contribute to society, rather than condemn him for the problems his theory allegedly caused.  The Darwinian Revolution is one of the key scientific revolutions in modern times.  And it is arguably the final step in the Newtonian Revolution.  First, Newton demonstrated that the universe operates according to fixed laws.  Then the heliocentrists come along and demonstrate that the Earth is not at the center of the universe.  Finally, Darwin comes along and places humanity right where it belongs, squarely within nature, as a part of nature rather than separate from it.  Although some might consider this step to be both theologically and scientifically radical, it is, to me, as elegant  to think of humanity as being intricately intertwined and tied to the rest of life on Earth as it is to think 0f humanity as somehow “above” and “separate from” nature.

The latter approach is flawed at its best, and dangerous at its worst. To forget that we are inherently and directly tied to the rest of the biosphere is to forget that our actions as a species have a direct, and often extreme, impact on that biosphere.  We are extremely capable of signing our own death warrants through our collective actions, and to accept that we are tied to the rest of the biosphere is to claim responsibility for our actions as well as for the wellbeing of life on Earth.  We are capable of destruction, yes, but we are also capable of preserving the small pockets of non-human life on this planet that we have not altered or destroyed.  This is one of the key lessons of the Darwinian Revolution, namely that the fate of the biosphere is inherently and directly responsible for our own fate as a species.

Darwinism, frankly, is not the root of all evil.  So let’s get over it, and fix the real problems facing this planet.  For me at least, crossdressing and atheism pale in comparison to starvation, homelessness, climate change, and the destruction of the biosphere.  First we need to fix the big problems facing humanity, and then we can argue about semantics.    Happy Darwin Day 2011, and don’t forget to remember Lincoln for a moment as well!

Explore posts in the same categories: 1800s, evolution, history of science, Science and Religion

One Comment on “Happy Darwin Day 2011!”

  1. Darwin Day Says:

    […] I'm just astounded by the ideas Darwin developed and then confirmed, not to mention all the sDarwin Day – Today, February 12th, is Darwin Day, a day very much worth celebrating, I think! Reading Origin […]

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