Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

After having been twice driven back by heavy south-western gales, Her Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831. - Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These, facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species - that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. - Charles Darwin, On The Origin Of Species

I shall argue that Darwin's theory does undermine traditional values. In particular, it undermines the traditional idea that human life has a special, unique worth. Thus, although I am an Darwinian, I will be defending a thesis that Darwin's friends have usually resisted. But I do not assume, as Darwin's enemies have assumed, that this implication of Darwinism is morally pernicious. I believe it is a positive and useful result that should be welcomed, not resisted. Abandoning the idea that human life has special importance does not leave us morally adrift; it only suggests the need for a different and better anchor. - James Rachels, Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, p.4

Tomorrow two men share a bicentennial birthday. One, our greatest President, will be remembered on the day. The other was a soft-spoken, somewhat reclusive naturalist who managed, despite all his attempts not to do so, to become one of the seminal figures of 19th century intellectual life.

I sometimes find it odd that, as I read in a local newspaper article yesterday, a large percentage of the American public does not "believe" in evolution. That's funny, because it's kind of like not believing in gravity, or the theory of Special Relativity. Whether one "believes" in either of these things or not, they are operable scientific theories because they usefully, and simply, and clearly, bring together all sorts of disparate data, and make solid predictions concerning the possibilities and fruitfulness of future research.

The trouble is, of course, that many people think that, at the heart of Mr. Darwin's theory lies the thesis so beautifully articulated by philosopher James Rachels, as quoted above. Looking for a "moral" dimension of a scientific theory is a bit like looking for an aesthetic dimension of a scientific theory. One can certainly find one if one tries hard enough. Indeed, if one really, really tries, one can see all sorts of things that aren't there, from canals on Mars to the political ramifications of quantum mechanics. The problem with these assertions - in particular the idea that there is a moral dimension to "Darwinianism" - is ludicrous. Darwin was merely describing the way species change and multiply over time. Is this a good or bad thing? Does the conclusion that human beings, like trilobytes, finches, bears, and whales emerged from a process of random mutation and natural selection threaten our moral sensibilities at all? Only if, I think, we believe that we can hold fast to human uniqueness as some transcendent notion.

As we remember the life of this humble, thoughtful, patient gatherer of a vast array of data; who pondered his initial conclusion for a decade before final publication (writing several monographs, including one on roundworms, in the meantime); and suffered the slings and arrows of the humorlessness of Bishop Samuel "Soapy" Wilberforce, and even the neglect of Britain's greatest 19th century statesman, William Gladstone; we should also remember that science has little to say about what "ought" to be. Charles Darwin was evasive on the implications of his theory for one reason and one reason alone. Beyond describing certain phenomena that occur over vast stretches of time, due to a variety of factors both micro- and macro- (the synthesis of Darwinian evolution by natural selection and Mendelian genetics would not become finally whole until after the Second World War, although some start was made in that direction in the 1930's), Mr. Darwin's theory has nothing to say about what kind of beings we humans should be.

As a Christian, I celebrate the life and discoveries of Charles Darwin, and wish with all my heart that people would please stop saying that there are those who don't "believe" in the theory of evolution. Try it with thermodynamics, and see how that works for you.

Virtual Tin Cup

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