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Who Cares About Darwin?

It’s more or less Darwin Opposite Day—the day half a year from Darwin’s birthday—so it’s a good time to ask the blasphemous question: Who cares about Darwin? More precisely: Who cares about what Darwin wrote?

Of course, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species revolutionized biology. In the history of science, he’s a god.

Darwin may be a god, but in biology today, Darwin’s writings don’t count for anything. No one checks their results against Darwin’s thinking. No biologist says, “That’s an interesting hypothesis, Chuzzlewaite, but let’s compare it against the Great Darwin to see if it holds up.”

By contrast, consider how Aristotle was elevated during the medieval period. What Aristotle said, not what experiment showed, determined science.

Aristotle’s views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by Newtonian physics. (Source)

Creationists seem to put Darwin into the Infallible Sage bin along with Aristotle, and they love to quote him as if biology today were constrained by what he said. But, of course, what Darwin wrote about evolution is important today only for the history of science, not biology. Even if they could make him look bad (and I say they don’t), so what? That would have nothing to do with the validity of the theory of evolution.

A popular Creationist tactic is to twist Darwin’s The Descent of Man to argue that he supported eugenics. Ben Stein’s “crockumentary” Expelled correctly quotes Darwin from this book:

Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Ah, so Darwin was rabidly in support of eugenics, right? Nope. The very next paragraph clarifies. He talks about our instincts for compassion and says,

Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.

Unsurprisingly, Expelled just quote-mines the first passage out of context to completely misrepresent Darwin’s views.

Here’s another excerpt popular among Creationists, this time from Origin of Species.

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

A frank admission by Darwin of the inadequacy of his theory? Not really. The very next sentence explains how evolution could account for it.

If numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist … then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection … can hardly be considered real.

Creationists out there: do your research into what Darwin actually said and don’t quote him out of context. It makes you look like a liar.

In the hope that humor can make the point where reason can’t, let me modify a popular Christian joke. Here’s the Christian version: A flood drives a devout man onto the roof of his house. A boat comes to take him away, but he says, “No—God will provide.” The water level keeps rising. Then another boat comes, and then a helicopter, but the man sends them all away. The flood water continues to rise, and he’s swept away and drowns.

He goes to heaven and he’s furious at God. “Why didn’t you save me?” he says.

“What did you want?” God says. “I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

Now: imagine a fundamentalist in heaven. With his new heavenly wisdom, he realizes that science was right all along, and his literalist take of the Bible was laughably wrong.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demands of God.

“What did you want?” God says. “I sent Charles Darwin and 100,000 evolutionary biologists!”

It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly)
that direct arguments against Christianity and theism
produce hardly any effect on the public;
and freedom of thought is best promoted
by the gradual illumination of men’s minds
which follows from the advance of science.
— Charles Darwin

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I think their tendency to quote Darwin as the end-all authoritative figure on biology comes from their own belief that the Bible is the end-all, final say in their own beliefs. They can’t seem to fathom that atheists do not depend on a single authoritative source for their beliefs. Even if Darwin DID support eugenics, who cares? That doesn’t change the advances in biological science or his own contributions towards the subject, and we never said Darwin was an authoritative source for our moral beliefs.

    Creationists would cringe at an atheist quote-mining the Bible to critique a Christian worldview, but they don’t apply this same standard when critiquing Darwin, who isn’t even held as a source of final dogmatic belief. It’s beyond absurd.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      As if Darwin were the atheist pope!

      Everyone knows that the atheist pope is Richard Dawkins …

      • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

        Well, you did bring up Darwin, which indicates that he is still a subject of interest today.
        Obviously as an authority in science Darwin is irrelevant — He himself would no doubt deny that there is any “authority” in science, save the hard evidence itself.
        What makes Darwin still a pertinent subject of discussion are the social and moral implications of his theory, in which case The Descent of Man is far more important than the origin of species. And what I think we see here in the quote cited in Expelled, is that Darwin himself was not necessarily willing to follow his ideas out their logical conclusion. At one point (the part quoted by Expelled) Darwin seemed to favor eugenics, arguably the logical conclusion of this theory. But then, as you pointed out, Darwin quickly drew back and made the statement you quoted above. What is interesting about it is that he saw a conflict between “the urging of hard reason” and “our sympathy,” and seems to identify “the noblest part of our nature” with the latter.
        What it all points to is a tension between the theory, which would logically lead one to eugenics (as well as racism and Social Darwinism) and our God-given humanity, which recoils at the idea. While Darwin was an atheistic scientist, he was also a human being (and by all accounts a genteel Englishman). The problem for us is that the his theory is still with us, and to the extent that we allow it to guide our moral and ethical thinking, we are in trouble.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          The difficulty IMO is simply Darwin’s style of writing. Instead of saying “Here’s where the facts point: …,” he first builds up the opposite argument (“Here’s why no designer for the eye is ridiculous” or “Here’s why no one but an idiot lets his inferior animals breed”) and then cuts it down.

          I don’t see any cultural or moral implications of evolution–what are you referring to? No, evolution does not lead logically to eugenics. Evolution simply tells is what is the case; it’s science. Eugenics is a proposal for what to do about it; it’s policy. Science is not policy.

          And as for Darwin being the subject of discussion, I think you mean that it’s evolution that’s the subject of discussion. You might say that that’s just splitting hairs, but my point is simply that evolution today is what we point to, not Darwin.

          Is our humanity given by God? I see no evidence of that. Seems to me that evolution explains what we see pretty well–no need to imagine a supernatural being.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    What I mean by the cultural and moral implications is this: by rejecting William Paley’s argument from design, Darwin offered a radically different worldview — a fundamentally different conception about the universe and man’s place in it. The Descent of Man was especially significant in this respect because to establish human evolution Darwin had to minimize the differences between human beings and apes.
    Ever since then philosophers, theologians and scientists have been wrestling with what this all means in practical terms. One would think that the theory of evolution would lead to racism, eugenics, social Darwinism, and even genocide. Most evolutionists, however, try to distance themselves from these implications, but have struggled to come up with alternatives. Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape is one of the more recent attempts. What he offers is basically an updated version of Utilitarianism. But if the literal truth about who we are and how we got here is evolution, it is hard for me to see how one can arrive at morality of altruism, and I think that the whole concept of “human rights” evaporates along with any kind of universal, objective norms of human behavior.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      One would think that the theory of evolution would lead to racism, eugenics, social Darwinism, and even genocide.

      Then one would be wrong. Darwin himself rejects it, as we’ve seen in the quotes above. But, since I don’t care what Darwin said, the real point is that eugenics is policy–it’s a proposal about what to do with the view of reality given to us by science. Don’t try to blame eugenics on science.

      Altruism is simply how we’re programmed. I see no evidence of universal moral truths, but that doesn’t mean that there is no morality (simply no objective morality).

      • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

        But if there is no objective morality, how could you criticize a state that wishes to practice eugenics, or genocide? Vox populi, vox Dei?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I criticize, with pleasure, whatever is in conflict with my own internal sense of right and wrong. Isn’t that how you do it?

          Back to my point, why imagine objective morality? Where’s the evidence?

        • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

          Of course the question of objective morality is closely connected with the question of God. If God does not exist as a personal-infinite being, then it is very hard to establish the basis for objective morality at all.
          How do I know God exists? I would suggest three concurrent lines of evidence: nature (the argument from design); conscience (our moral intuitions); and Scripture (written revelation). Of course in modern times both the first and the last have come under severe criticism, leaving liberal theologians with just the middle one – our own subjective feeling of connectedness to the universe and our moral intuitions. But I think the other two still deserve consideration.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          So you have no direct evidence that objective morality exists but you infer it indirectly because God exists?

          We could discuss your 3 areas of evidence in detail, though that could be a long conversation. Just a quick thought about objective or universally true morality. It seems to me that there are two ways of explaining the morality that we see: universal moral truths or universally held moral instincts. The latter seems sufficient and doesn’t require the incredible hypothesis of a god.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    Suppose a man is having an affair with another woman, and then feels guilty about it. He visits his therapist. What would keep the therapist from diagnosing him as neurotic, and advising him to learn to accept what is right for him? But then suppose that the man’s wife goes to visit the same therapist? What would he say to her?
    Or to consider an example on a larger scale, The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” On the basis of evolution, this is a nonsense statement. There is no Creator, and there is no basis for saying that “all men are created equal.” Are there still, then, “unalienable rights”? Where do they come from? What is their basis in reality? What if an entire society tacitly sanctions, through its political system, human rights abuses? On what basis could anyone say that the society was wrong?
    At some point we need to be able to point to something objective, and say that certain forms of activity are absolutely wrong and should never be tolerated by society.
    When I say that, I realize that in actual practice this rarely ever happens. Some people have strong moral convictions about certain issues, most probably do not. The politicians who make the decisions are usually not motivated by the fear of God, if you catch my drift. And so the usual result is something of a moral compromise, and our laws are filled with logical inconsistencies. Marijuana use is illegal, but tobacco and alcohol use are not. Is this because tobacco and alcohol are better for you? I don’t think so. It’s just the way the political process works out. What about the pharmacy that sells tobacco in the front of the store and medicine in the back? In my more cynical moments I am tempted to think that making people sick is good for a pharmacy’s business. Should selling tobacco be illegal? I would like to think so, but it probably isn’t going to happen. And so I just keep paying for the folly of my fellow citizens through the health care system.
    Well, I have probably wandered a bit, and for that I apologize. But my main point is this: the reason we need an objective, universally applicable code of morality is because of the conflicts of interest in society and because of the contradictions within our own individual personalities. If morality is nothing more than a universally held moral instinct, then it is a matter of personal belief, and that is hardly binding.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Suppose a man is having an affair with another woman, and then feels guilty about it.

      I’m not sure what your point is.

      Having an affair causes harm–not good. “Don’t worry about it” is an insufficient response.

      Are there still, then, “unalienable rights”? Where do they come from? What is their basis in reality?

      I see no evidence of objective moral truths, but we can explain the morality that we see in the world quite nicely without that assumption.

      How about you? Do you argue for objective morality?

      On what basis could anyone say that the society was wrong?

      They conflict with my sense of morality; therefore, I think they’re wrong. Pretty straightforward, no?

      Do you do it any differently?

      At some point we need to be able to point to something objective, and say that certain forms of activity are absolutely wrong and should never be tolerated by society.

      Then do so. Make an objective moral truth claim and back it up.

      When I say that, I realize that in actual practice this rarely ever happens.

      I agree. We all pretty much know that the claim of objective morality is bunk, so we shy away from defending it.

      Some people have strong moral convictions about certain issues, most probably do not.

      Strong moral convictions are one thing; objective moral truth is quite another. I have strong moral convictions, but I see no reason to pretend that there’s an objective grounding for them.

      If morality is nothing more than a universally held moral instinct, then it is a matter of personal belief, and that is hardly binding.

      And yet my hypothesis explains the morality that we see in the world quite nicely. Why grope for something supernatural when you don’t have to?

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    Your hypothesis explains why people have personal beliefs about morality, but if there is no objective moral code, then they are simply deluded.
    And, of course, it all comes down to whether or not God exists. If there is a single all-powerful Creator God, why wouldn’t His will be normative? On the other hand, if there is no God, it is extremely difficult to posit an objective morality, and all we are left with are people’s personal beliefs.
    I was just reading Libby Anne’s “introduction” blog post, and noticed how many people claimed to be atheists and humanists at the same time, with progressive political beliefs — concerned with women’s rights, etc. But on the basis of your hypothesis, “human rights” is a matter of personal opinion. “Human rights” don’t exist objectively. Now, you can argue that you’re entitled to your opinion, and that’s fine. But if you make your opinion a political agenda, then you’re trying to force your opinion, through the political process, on everyone else. If you are logically consistent about the nature of morality, wouldn’t you have to say that you are free to live by your own personal moral code, but that decisions of state should be made on the basis of power politics and economics?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Your hypothesis explains why people have personal beliefs about morality, but if there is no objective moral code, then they are simply deluded.

      There’s objective morality (Is there evidence of such a thing? I sure don’t see it.) and there’s just plain ol’ morality. I just feel that it’s right to do this and wrong to do that. This idea that objective morality is the only morality is ridiculous. Don’t believe me? Look up “morality” in the dictionary and show me that objective grounding.

      You think that morality is objectively true? If it’s reliably accessible, show me. If it’s not, then why bother making the argument?

      If there is a single all-powerful Creator God…

      Show me that there’s a god first, and then we can speculate.

      if there is no God, it is extremely difficult to posit an objective morality

      And I don’t!

      Nevertheless, everything is nicely explained. Where’s the problem?

      on the basis of your hypothesis, “human rights” is a matter of personal opinion. “Human rights” don’t exist objectively.

      And again, just like with morality, there not being objective human rights doesn’t mean there aren’t human rights. Do you think there are human rights? If so, then, according to you, there are human rights. Turns out, I agree. Hey–group hug! We ask around, and everyone has a similar idea of how people should treat people. Y’know–we could form a society and have rules that codify these humans rights.

      And indeed that’s what we see when we look around. No need for an objective anything.

      But if you make your opinion a political agenda, then you’re trying to force your opinion, through the political process, on everyone else.

      Uh … you think it works a different way? Sometimes we disagree, and then we discuss or even argue. Sometimes we wind up agreeing, sometimes we agree to disagree, and sometimes we part as enemies. Does it work some other way in your part of the world?

      If you are logically consistent about the nature of morality, wouldn’t you have to say that you are free to live by your own personal moral code, but that decisions of state should be made on the basis of power politics and economics?

      Ever wonder why we speak English instead of German in America, now that WW2 is over? It’s ’cause we won. (Clumsy example, admittedly.)

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