Scientific theories do not occur in a vacuum. Like poems or paintings, theories reflect the times and characters or their authors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, far from being a stark and cold scientific theory, was—and continues to be—an impassioned cry for equality and justice. A cry far more grounded and stirring than anything available in the religions that human beings then, and into our own time, tenaciously claim to be the only source and grounding for morality.
First, a little family history: Charles Darwin’s family was passionately involved in the abolition movement. Darwin’s grandfather, the Unitarian Josiah Wedgwood—of Wedgwood china fame—bankrolled Thomas Clarkson, the great British abolitionist. Britain, due in great part to the work of Clarkson, outlawed slavery in the dominions in 1807 and the colonies in 1833.
(A bit of historical trivia: One of the chemists working in the Wedgwood factory was Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen, and a Unitarian minister. )
Charles Darwin’s father, hoping to tone down the radical reputation of the family, had Charles baptized into the Church of England. But it is an interesting fact of history that the father of the theory of natural selection . . . married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, a Unitarian, and considerably more radical, at least publicly, than Charles.
The fact remains that when the 22 Charles boarded HMS Beagle in 1831, he was a conventional Christian considering going to seminary and becoming a priest in the Church of England.
For the full story, read Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. When we look at Darwin’s life from the perspective of the slavery question, it looks almost inevitable that he should call religion’s bluff concerning its monopoly on morality and show a way toward a higher morality.
In 1845 Darwin wrote,
I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have staid in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. … And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty… .
Darwin knew very well that the appeal to religion as a basis for moral behavior would be one of the first objections to the theory of natural selection. Yes, I think he would have pursued his theory, even if it had meant that human beings had no moral guidepost. But I suspect that Darwin knew that the implications of natural selection point in exactly the opposite direction.
Consider how Darwin framed the discussion:
His first proposal, published in 1859 but written in 1837, was this:
Living things are all one: they are “netted together.” (Darwin avoided the question of the “crown of creation,” human beings, as best he could in his first book.)
Then, in 1871, Darwin dropped the bigger bombshell:
Humanity is all one.
And therefore, we must strive toward a higher morality than that which we have developed thus far. Darwin wrote, “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”
Darwin knew that, despite pretensions, Christianity—and the other human religions— more often underwrite and condone the prejudices of societies than point in the direction of a higher morality, a more good and just society. You don’t have to be Darwin in the mid-Nineteenth Century to see that!
I’m not an extremist concerning the effects of religion because, frankly, I think people will be people, no matter what the religious or political overlay . . . on an individual level, that is. The evidence is all around us: The vast majority of human beings are basically “good,” meaning most of us don’t hurt others all that often. Most of us don’t steal things . . . all that often. Most of us behave in ways that add up to going along to get along.
Most of us aren’t Jesus. Or Gandhi. Or Martin Luther King, but we’re not Stalin or John Wayne Gacy either. Most people—Christian, Muslim, or atheist—go along to get along.
That’s on an individual level. Religions get dangerous in the aggregate—when those systems begin to say who can enslave whom; who can subjugate whom; who can kill whom for what set of reasons.
Consider again what Darwin said about slavery and the treatment of slaves:
And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty… .
It is the aggregate that creates the evil, by “palliating”—by underwriting and condoning—the evil deeds.
But in the face of this fact Darwin saw, as perhaps no other human being had ever yet seen, that adaptations are adaptations, brain cells are brain cells. In humans. In primates. In animals. “We are all netted together,” Darwin wrote.
We are still on the frontier of this way of thinking. William Shakespeare long ago said, “A touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” It took Charles Darwin to tell us just how true this is. And we still don’t comprehend it: We are all netted together.
Where, then, is the uniqueness of human beings?
Consciousness. Not the sort of consciousness that tells us whether the sun is shining; not the sort of consciousness that tells us whether it is good or bad to sleep with particular people. The sort of consciousness that allows us to think about the thoughts of others—other people; other animals. This is the most complex form or consciousness. It is moral conscience.
Before Darwin the answer to the question, “why does consciousness exist?” was, “Poof! It’s magic! Set off by the divine spark . . .” After Darwin, the answer is not so neat and tidy. But the answer we have points the way toward a higher morality. Darwin put it this way: “The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”
This is the profundity of the theory of natural selection: far from making us mere animals, as the religious often claim, natural selection calls us to see beyond the limitations of our time and place. Natural selection posits a mode of being beyond the mere going along to get along. Natural selections tells us to control our basic impulses. Not because those are animal impulses—all our impulses are animal impulses—but because the sort of animal we are can see beyond our selves.