Thank God for evolution, if you’re so inclined. Thank Charles Darwin that we understand it.
Next week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his best-known work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
No, Darwin did not “invent” evolution.
He didn’t even “discover” it. He was just the first to write a coherent theory—and to publish ahead of a competitive colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace—based on his observations that natural forces cause groups of organisms to change over time, eventually becoming new species.
Contrary to what you may have heard on right-wing radio or in some churches, On the Origin of Species didn’t have a thing to say about the origin of life. Darwin was concerned with understanding changes to groups of organisms over time, not where, when or how those organisms originated.
Even so, Darwin immediately—and ever after—precipitated a roiling debate. One hundred fifty years later, Darwin’s name gets waved like a red cape before bulls, as if discrediting him would somehow defend the existence of God (and as if any God worth her salt would need defending). Wannabe evolution busters, whether outright creationists or stealth-style “intelligent design” advocates, seem to delight in saying they’ve “proved” Darwin wrong.
They don’t need to “prove” Darwin wrong. Any scientific theory, including evolution, has been dismantled, reassembled, fiddled with, tweaked and improved thousands of times in a century and a half. That’s why it’s science and not religion: Science relies on evidence, with new evidence producing new conclusions. Religion relies upon faith; neither provable nor disprovable, it must be believed.
Stephen Jay Gould famously referred to science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisteria.” I call ’em “same planet, different view screen.”
Don’t assume that scientists—let alone skeptics, freethinkers and intellectuals of any stripe—believe in Darwin’s theory in the same way that the religious believe in God. Evolution isn’t something to believe in. It’s a set of ideas, theories and principles to explore, understand, disprove, improve and examine. Belief is not an issue.
And that is precisely why Darwin is not now and never has been a threat to anyone’s religious beliefs. Seriously, that’s like saying that Galileo—and Kepler and Copernicus, too—were threatening religion when they pointed out the obvious fact that the Earth orbits the sun. It wasn’t a revocation of catechism; it was a statement of fact.
Yes, Galileo was tried for heresy and imprisoned by the Catholic Church (he was pardoned a few years back). But it wasn’t Galileo’s observations and theories of planetary movement—which, by the way, weren’t completely correct and were not the first published—that got him in trouble with the Inquisition. He attracted the attention of the Church’s enforcers by publishing a book in which he called a cardinal a simpleton.
Basically, Galileo didn’t speak truth to power. He spoke smartass to everyone.
There really is a lot to learn from the way that Darwin has been mistreated, both by the ultrareligious, who fear him, and by the less-than-scientific but anti-religious, who venerate him.
Short form: Scientists, even when they’re right, are willing to be wrong. There’s as much to learn from negative results as from positive ones when you’re doing the sort of painstaking, long-term examination of nature that science requires.
No one would be happier than Darwin to know that evolutionary scientists have been repairing the flaws in his theory. And, given that understanding how organisms evolve has given us useful things, horses big enough to ride and vaccines that help us fight off this season’s flu, we might want to be happy about it, too.
Some of us might even thank God.