Darwin’s Long Regret

Since we’ve been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it’s worth remembering that there’s nothing new under the sun. As long as there’s been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity’s greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here’s one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase “by the Creator” was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant “appeared” by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can’t help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he’d left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin’s writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people’s preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, however, it’s that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that’s still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn’t modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It’s better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don’t worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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