|Darwin and His 'Dangerous Idea'|
Presented at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, February 1, 2009
Several years ago author Christopher Hitchins commented, "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." How much better the world might be were this axiom more frequently practiced! Acquiring evidence to support hypotheses is the province of science, and science is under orchestrated attack today by religious dogmatists. The life and monumental work of Charles Darwin provides an unparalleled example of science in action. Darwin's intellectual journey included initial unquestioned acceptance of the prevailing assertions of 19th century creationist doctrine, his increasing doubt in those verities, and finally his dismissal of the biblical explanation, based on exhaustive scientific evidence and reason to reveal the truth - that is, his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection.
It was on February 12, 1809, almost 200 years ago, that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Both were to become Great Emancipators: Lincoln to free American slaves from physical servitude, and Darwin to liberate the human mind from the bonds of supernatural dogma. Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England. His parents were the well-known and respected physician, Robert Darwin, and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin of the prominent Wedgwood family, world famous as the makers of fine china. Charles' grandfather was the imposing and unconventional Erasmus Darwin, physician and philosopher of the late 18th century.
On both sides it was a prosperous, well-educated, upper middle class, largely Unitarian family, believing in the unity of God, and skeptical of Trinitarian doctrine - nonconformists in a society where most were members of the Church of England. Charles' mother died when he was 8 years old, so he was brought up predominantly by his older sisters who exerted a loving, humane, sensitive influence on him. Darwin's childhood was otherwise unremarkable. He thoroughly enjoyed outdoor pursuits, especially hunting and collecting wildlife specimens, but showed no signs of genius or future greatness. In fact his father, the corpulent Dr. Darwin, is reported to have once said, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family!" How ironic that young Charles was to go on to deduce what can arguably be acknowledged as the most important contribution ever to science.
Robert dreamed of his son's carrying on the medical tradition of himself and his grandfather Erasmus, and at age 16 Charles went dutifully off to Edinburgh to study medicine. Within a few months, however, young Charles realized that he was quite unsuited in disposition and personality to this profession. He was sickened by the sight of bloody operations performed without anesthesia, and appalled by the prevalence of body-snatching to provide cadavers for dissection. Eventually, the elder Darwin suggested his son change his career objective to theology, an appropriate vocation for a person of his social status, and agreeable enough to young Charles, as, in his words "…I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible."
And so Charles Darwin transferred to Cambridge in 1828 where he completed a degree in theology. In his years there he read and was greatly influenced by the late 18th century theologian William Paley, patron saint of today's creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. Paley's 1802 book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity proposed that "…[in nature] the marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person must have been God." In his Autobiography Darwin recalled, "I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley's. I could almost …have said it by heart."
During his years at Cambridge, Darwin became close friends with several influential faculty members, notably botanist Rev. John Henslow, a strong proponent of natural theology, and geologist Adam Sedgwick, who was a catastrophist, believing in biblical interpretations and catastrophic events like Noah's flood as responsible for the earth's present appearance. The prevailing intellectual view at Cambridge and elsewhere embodied the concept of natural theology as proposed by the Rev. Paley: the goal of knowing and understanding God through study of his works, the idea that nature, in all its splendor, reveals God's divine plan. In other words, the study of nature was viewed as an act of religious devotion.
Aside from several important friendships he made, Darwin's educational career at Cambridge was not particularly noteworthy. He graduated prepared for a quiet, respectable, parish clergy position, contemplating his ultimate future from a position of sound family financial background and without immediate or pressing demands on his time.
It was thus fortuitous that his botany professor John Henslow recommended young Charles for a position as "gentleman naturalist" and dining companion to Capt Robert Fitzroy, commander of the HMS Beagle, which was about to embark on a hydrographic survey trip exploring the coasts of South America. The chosen man was required to be of Capt. Fitzroy's approximate age and social class. Darwin jumped at the opportunity and, despite initial family opposition, he joined the entourage and set sail on The Beagle in 1831. [That and subsequent voyages of The Beagle and other ships are recounted in an enchanting book by Richard Lee Marks, Three Men of the Beagle, which describes Darwin, Capt. Fitzroy, and Jemmy Button, the aboriginal Indian who had been captured on a previous trip of The Beagle. Jemmy Button and several others were taken to England to be civilized and subsequently returned to their native land, Tierra Del Fuego, in an utterly futile and disastrous, if not arrogant and ill-conceived attempt to introduce Christianity and English culture in aboriginal tribes.]
Darwin began his voyage on The Beagle trained for the clergy, a believer in the biblical account in Genesis, and an unquestioning Christian. Indeed, as the late biologist and U-U Garrett Hardin has commented "most long-surviving religions call for a commitment that discourages the asking of questions." Like virtually all of his contemporaries, Darwin was a creationist, believing that the exquisite adaptations of many species were compelling evidence that a "designer had created each species for its intended place in the economy of nature" - an idea often called "the fixity of species".
Significantly, Darwin carried with him aboard ship a copy of the first volume of young Charles Lyell's very recently published Principles of Geology (1830), which challenged the catastrophism of Darwin's professor Adam Sedgwick and others, and posited instead the principle of uniformitarianism (the idea that geological changes currently at work, such as mountain building and erosion, are the same as processes that have taken place throughout the earth's vast history). Most importantly, Lyell's ideas suggested a much, much older earth than accepted at the time. Darwin's friend from Cambridge, the deeply religious botanist Henslow, had warned him against the heresies of Lyell's ideas, especially the age of the earth.
And so The Beagle set sail from Plymouth, England, on Dec. 27, 1831, a date that Darwin later vowed to commemorate as the birthday of his "second life". She crossed the Atlantic and traveled up and down both coasts of South America, west to the Galapagos Archipelago, across the Pacific to Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and eventually, in 1836, returned to England. It was by no means a picnic. The voyage was envisioned to be completed in two years, but extended to nearly five. Conditions aboard The Beagle were miserably cramped and Darwin was tormented by continuing seasickness. Capt. Fitzroy was intense, authoritarian, puritanical, and aristocrat, and prone to alternating periods of depression and passionate outbursts of temper, perhaps in part a result of conflicts with his own intense religious beliefs.
Despite considerable hardships, the voyage awakened in Darwin his innate scientific instincts. He kept copious notes. He was cautious, compulsively industrious, and exacting in his work. According to his son Francis, "Doggedness expresses his frame of mind…his almost fierce desire to force the truth to reveal itself." For five years in exotic lands Darwin explored coral reefs and river beds, hiked the Argentine pampas and climbed Andean mountains; experienced volcanic eruptions and a Chilean earthquake, recorded stratifications of rocks and soils; discovered fossils of conifers, shellfish, and mastodons; collected flowers, birds, insects, and reptiles. He observed distributions of organisms that did not make sense unless some natural scientific laws were governing their past history. He saw evidence of extinctions when he unearthed the bones of fossilized mammals in Patagonia. He found fossil seashells more than 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains, evidence that ocean floors had been uplifted in the remote geological past. And he saw remarkable adaptations of plants and animals to their surroundings.
Traveling northwest from the Chilean coast, The Beagle reached the Galapagos Archipelago in 1835, the place often credited as the site of Darwin's most crucial observations. The Galapagos Islands were formed by volcanic eruption in the comparatively recent geological past (about two million years ago). Darwin realized that this phenomenon must have presented life with vast new opportunities, occasions for the appearance of new life forms, new species even. He wrote, "Hence both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat nearer to that great fact, that mystery of mysteries, the first appearance of new beings on this earth." He reasoned that novel Galapagos species must have originated as accidental colonists from Central and South America, only to modify their adaptations in subsequent generations in response to different environments on the islands. He at last began to recognize the critical importance of immense amounts of geological time in the accumulation of tiny changes that eventually lead to the appearance of new species.
When Darwin returned to England in 1836, never to leave the country again, he was already famous. His letters to his teacher Henslow had been privately published without his knowledge and distributed to leading naturalists in Britain. But Darwin returned a changed man. As Elof Carlson, distinguished geneticist and historian of science has put it, "[he] returned with a secret he could not share. He had lost his faith. He had demoted himself to a Deist, that Unitarian-like penultimate descent to atheism."
Back in England, Darwin lived several years in London, where he consulted with experts, attended scientific meetings, published his Journal, and continued to identify and catalog the specimens he had collected on the voyage. Darwin was a compulsive list-maker and scribbler throughout his life. He even drew up a balance sheet, a list of the pros and cons of marriage: "Marry" in the left-hand column, "Not Marry" on the right. (If he stayed unmarried he would be free to do what he liked, free to choose his own company, and listen to the "conversation of clever men in clubs"; he would not be forced to visit relatives; he would have time to work. On the other hand, a wife would be a companion for old age and would take care of the house; he would enjoy the charms of music and female chit-chat. "Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa," he wrote, "with a good fire and books and music - such a wife is better than a dog anyhow"!) And so, he concluded that marriage was, on balance, preferable. Accordingly, he proposed to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood and they were married in 1839. They soon settled at a comfortable country estate in the small village of Downe about 16 miles from London.
Now most of the Wedgwoods and Darwins were Unitarians, but none of them was particularly devout. In fact, Charles' grandfather Erasmus had once described Unitarianism as "a featherbed to catch a falling Christian". But Charles' new wife, Emma Wedgwood Darwin, was a rather devout Christian. Although his father Robert had urged him not to share his religious doubts with Emma, Charles nevertheless confided in her from the start of their marriage. Still, he respected her sentiments and let her set the tone for their domestic life. Only in his Autobiography did Darwin express his religious opinions freely. Emma was the model Victorian wife, devoting her life to caring for her husband and producing children (10 of them) at respectable intervals; all were baptized and confirmed in the Church of England.
At their estate in Downe, Charles, surrounded by his devoted family, worked in comparative isolation and relative comfort, although dogged throughout his life by poor health. He spent the next 20 years patiently sorting out all of the data he had collected on the voyage of The Beagle and using it to construct a unifying theory to explain the evolution (or "transmutation") of species. Designing experiments to test his hypotheses, he examined breeds of ornamental domestic pigeons, skeletons of rabbits, wings of ducks, and devoted 8 years to a detailed study of variations in 10,000 specimens of barnacles. He examined the viability and dispersal of seeds, kept notebooks on "transmutation", and discussed the "species problem" with close friends - before he finally dared to begin writing his great book on natural selection - his "dangerous idea"…because he understood the strength of conventional opinion on the fixity of species.
Darwin's doubts about Christianity can be traced, at least in part, to his encounters with slavery and slave-owning Christians, a practice condoned in the Bible. He had observed first-hand considerable brutality among slave-owners in Brazil and he had argued bitterly with Capt. Fitzroy over the subject. Darwin was an ardent supporter of the North in the American Civil War and even cancelled his subscription to The Times of London because of its pro-Southern bias.
Furthermore, Darwin was profoundly troubled by the problem of evil. Believers, including Fitzroy, argued that suffering is ennobling, but Darwin's knowledge of the suffering of animals, not to mention that of humans, prevented his reconciliation of theodicy, i.e., evil and suffering, vs. the goodness of God. He saw a kind of war or struggle in nature in which organisms produce far more offspring than can possibly survive. He saw what looked like a massive destruction of life, especially among the newborn. "Was God indifferent to the suffering of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time?" he asked. And why would a benevolent God have created all his wondrous creatures only to allow them to die out in the mass extinctions that clearly had taken place over time? Moreover, the agonizing death of his favorite child, Annie, at the age of 10 threw him into deep despair and further estranged him from religious belief.
In his Autobiography (finally published in unexpurgated version only in 1958) Darwin writes, "[In the years immediately after the voyage] I was led to think much about religion… I had gradually come by this time to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world… and from its attributing to God the feelings of a vengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred book of the Hindus or the beliefs of any barbarian… that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more [unbelievable] do miracles become; … I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation…I was very unwilling to give up my belief…but I found it more and more difficult … to invent evidence that would suffice to convince me. Thus, disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress and have never ever since doubted, even for a single second, that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of [the Bible] seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all of my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And that is a damnable doctrine."
In 1838 during his years in London after the voyage, Darwin read the economist Thomas Malthus' essay on Population (1798) in which Malthus stated, referring to human populations, "Population when unchecked…increases in geometric ratio … but subsistence increases arithmetically." Darwin was already seeing failure to adapt as a key to the evolution of species; he had come to the conclusion from his observation of domesticated species that selection was the mechanism of change … and then, after reading Malthus' conclusions about human populations, he saw at once how to apply this mechanism to populations in nature. He realized that in the struggle for scarce resources, favorable variants would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones destroyed. As a result, over long periods of geological time, new species would appear. Darwin's staunch friend and supporter, the brilliant biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, later to be known as Darwin's bulldog, famously quipped, "How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!"
In 1842 Darwin wrote the first abstract of his theory, and he expanded this document in 1844. During this period he corresponded frequently with his friend the botanist, Joseph Dalton Hooker, to whom he confided privately, "At last gleams of light have come and I am almost convinced… that species are not immutable (it is like confessing a murder!)." In the next dozen years he published The Voyage of The Beagle and a number of monographs on his research topics, most notably an extensive treatise on barnacles based on that 8-year study I mentioned earlier, which established him firmly in the scientific community as an expert, an authority in a specific narrow field. By the way, this book remains the definitive work on barnacles to this day. In 1856 his friend geologist Charles Lyell strongly urged him to publish his theory of natural selection, but Darwin was still reluctant and he procrastinated, no doubt because he realized what a bombshell this would be, a real paradigm shift, a change in basic assumptions about the diversity of life forms.
Then, unexpectedly in June 1858, he received a stunning letter from a fellow naturalist then working in the East Indies, Alfred Russell Wallace, describing his own recent discovery - "in a flash of insight" - of the principle of natural selection. [[A little background on Wallace - he came from a middle class family and supported himself by collecting specimens to sell from the Amazon where he traveled for a number of years with Henry Walter Bates, and later in the Malay Archipelago (now known as Indonesia). Wallace had read Lyell and was convinced of evolution; he sought evidence to corroborate and discover its cause. In contrast, Darwin "had allowed the patterns of the natural world to seep into him, absorbing almost subliminally the key clues pointing to evolution that impressed themselves upon him during the voyage. When he left on his journey in late 1831, Darwin was as much a creationist as any of his contemporaries… It took a few years for him to bring the clues of evolution … to the surface [of his mind] as explicit thought." (Eldredge, pp49-50)]] Shaken and incredulous on receipt of Wallace's letter, Darwin reported to his friend Lyell, who promptly arranged a joint session of the Linnaean Society with presentation of short papers by both Darwin and Wallace.
Darwin then quickly finished the 1844 "abstract" and published his "abominable volume", The Origin of Species in 1859, followed by The Descent of Man in 1871. Darwin bombarded his readers with so many facts that the cumulative weight of the evidence in support of his thesis became overwhelming. He had anticipated many if not most of the criticisms that would arise and he answered them in advance. Response in much of the scientific community was generally positive, but the anticipated storm soon broke among the clergy and the general public. Among the most famous of remarks regarding man's surmised descent from apes was that attributed to the wife of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford: "Let us hope that it is not true, but if it is true, let us hope that it will not become widely known."
Within about a decade most of the educated community accepted the fact of evolution (i.e., "descent with modification"), if not the theory of natural selection, which explains the fact of evolution. However, many were uneasy about where the evidence and their reason were leading them. Some tried to incorporate a deity into their thinking either as an original creator or as a guiding hand in the process of species change. By the end of the 19th century, science was a recognized profession, liberated from theology. Evolution was established as a fact in the public mind; and the Darwinian theory explaining natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution was accepted by many intellectuals. Some very important scientific questions remained, but many of these were cleared up in the first half of the 20th century when Darwinian evolution theory merged with Mendelian genetic theory in what became known as the Modern Synthesis.
So to summarize, the lines of evidence assembled by Darwin include the geographical distribution of species over the earth; the fossil record, the replacement of older species gone extinct by newer ones over geological time; the anatomical similarities between species grouped in the same categories (e.g., the same skeletal elements make up the forelimbs of all mammals - humans, cats, whales, bats - even though they have very different functions); the similarity in developmental stages passed through by closely related organisms. All of these observations, Darwin concluded, are best explained not by creationism, but by descent with modification - evolution by means of natural selection.
The Darwin-Wallace Theory can be outlined in brief as follows:
The impact of the theory of evolution by natural selection has been profound, all the more so since the Modern Synthesis incorporating genetic theory in the 1930s and 40s and the most recent, late 20th and early 21st century breakthroughs in phenomena of embryological development, known as "evo-devo" (the More Modern Synthesis), which are now providing clues to the appearance of novel forms, such as wings and limbs, in the evolutionary process. In 1973 the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Evidence leads us to conclude that life on earth has diversified on its own without any kind of external guidance. Evolution in a pure Darwinian world has no goal or purpose: the exclusive driving force is random mutations sorted out by natural selection from one generation to the next over eons of time. We can think of natural selection as a sieving process in which the best adapted individuals in a given environment will survive and reproduce, passing on their heritable variations to subsequent generations.
With every new major scientific advance, religion has fought to protect its "divinely revealed" domain. Copernicus in 1543 had to conceal and water down his idea of a sun-centered solar system within a vast universe. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his heretical beliefs, including Copernican cosmology. Galileo was arrested and silenced on threat of excommunication and death for his support of Copernicus' denial of geocentrism.
And E.O. Wilson, who has recently published a new edition of Darwin's works, points out that, "The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation and not its purpose either… Evolution by natural selection as applied to humans means that the essential qualities of the human mind also evolved autonomously… However elevated in power over the rest of life, however exalted in self-image, we were descended from animals by the same blind force that created those animals, and we remain a member species of this planet's biosphere… Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products."
David Quammen puts it this way, "Scientific insight and religious dogma had never come more directly into conflict. It was a bigger issue than whether humans and monkeys, along with lobsters and dandelions and all other living creatures, share an absence of special divine appointment. In plain language: a soul or no soul? An afterlife or not? Are humans spiritually immortal in a way that chickens and cows aren't, or just another form of animated meat?" (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, pp209-10)
Darwin and his friend Thomas Henry Huxley were often accused of being atheists, but both consistently maintained they were agnostics, a term coined by Huxley - meaning that they felt they had no knowledge, based on empirical evidence about the existence of any sort of supernatural being (hence, a-gnosticism, "without knowledge"). Perhaps today we might call them negative atheists - they did not outright deny the existence of a supernatural power, but were skeptics, non-believers, as a result of lack of evidence (hence, a-theism, "without theism").
It is hard to believe that today, 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species and after a monumental accumulation of peer-reviewed supporting evidence by the scientific community, we are still fighting a rear-guard action against the forces of religious doctrinal ignorance. The recent Intelligent Design charade is testimony to the dangers inherent in literal belief in any mythology in which reason and free inquiry are not permitted to shed their light on truth. The Christian Right is embarked on an unrelenting, stifling attempt to roll back the clock to the theocratic tyranny of another age when the revealed Biblical message was essentially unchallenged in the western world.
In much of the Western world and among developed nations America is being chastised and even ridiculed because of our societal tolerance of creationism in this scientific age. Darwin remains a figure reviled by evangelicals and other literalists because, as Richard Dawkins has put it, "Darwin's ideas carried to their logical conclusion undercut the very basis of Christianity if not indeed all theistic religion. Evolution has made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
This is why, in my view, we must openly confront and criticize the outdated beliefs of the great Abrahamic, monotheistic religions. There is the mistaken, political correctness notion adrift in our society that religious ideas are outside the realm of acceptable criticism - that criticism of religion is taboo. But why should this be so? Any ideas whatsoever - especially those that are divisive, destructive, and irrational - demand serious scrutiny and criticism, if not outright condemnation. Sam Harris in his best-selling book, The End of Faith, puts it this way:
To my mind, science and religion are unquestionably in deep conflict, and religious beliefs are perhaps the major forces tearing our world apart. It is an affront to our intelligence that today we must waste our time and effort fighting to protect our school curricula from the intrusion of Iron Age religious ignorance and to fend off a full scale assault at the highest governmental levels on the wall of separation between church and state.
Nobel Laureate Christian DeDuve has written, "It is tempting to say that dialog [between science and religion] will be possible only by compromise. Let each add some water to their wine, and there will be understanding. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a political or ideological conflict, but with respect for truth. On what has been convincingly demonstrated, science can make no concession. If there is conflict between what science knows and what religion believes, [religion] must give in,"
This is the crux of our dilemma today. Most of the world is still locked in dogmatic belief systems which eschew, even disdain, critical thinking. The New Enlightenment, born of doubt and forged on the rule of reason and free inquiry, is by no means assured. Back in the 60s historian Lynn White made the following observation, still pertinent today: "Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man's relation to nature, which are almost universally held, not only by Christians and neo-Christians, but also by those who regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin we are not - in our hearts - part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim."
Charles Darwin, at a time when it was even more difficult to speak out with contrarian views, broke from the taboo against unquestioning acceptance of Christian doctrinal belief. To repeat Christopher Hitchins' observation, Darwin realized that "Assertions made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Darwin, the reluctant revolutionary, was a quiet, retiring, kind, and patient man. But he had an unrelenting thirst for evidence to bring real truth to light. The unifying theory of evolution by natural selection is his great gift to us. It is incumbent upon us not to waste it or set it aside out of "politeness" or "political correctness" in the face of religious polemics. Rather we should continue to be inspired by Darwin's own poetic and uplifting words at the conclusion of the 1st edition of The Origin:
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