How grand is the onward rush of science!
—Charles Darwin to Alfred Russel Wallace, 1872
Few ideas have engendered as much emotional resistance as the theory of evolution. Darwin's announcement generated voluminous and venomous reviews in newspapers, and turned many of his friends into enemies. Here in the twenty-first century, we find the situation little improved, with Christian government officials encouraging teachers in public schools to overlook evolution and Darwin entirely, as if the theory never did turn science entirely on its head. In response, the scientific community reacts with alarm and public ridicule.
Why is the theory of evolution so inflammatory? Why do so many nonscientists feel the need to valiantly attack or defend the idea? Theories like the Big Bang are as contradictory to religious beliefs, yet you seldom see Big Bang bumper stickers. I believe there are two reasons.
First, evolution is personal. It says something about each one of us—that we were once simpler creatures, that we didn't start out as the exalted and unique creations we now assume we are. In fact, we looked like apes. This can come as something of a shock, particularly if one is inclined to look down on our more hirsute cousins.
But another reason has to be that the theory of evolution, and in particular Darwin's theory of natural selection, is so accessible. It has the unmistakable elegance of a great theory; once you read it, you say, as Thomas Huxley did, "Why didn't I think of that?" Darwin's statement of his idea, The Origin of Species, is so clearly drawn that anyone can understand it, and understand the evidence he gives to support it. How many other scientific theories are like that? Most of us can't argue with Newtonian physics or Einstein's relativity with anything like expertise, because most of us can't reproduce the mathematics. Darwin himself struggled hard with mathematics. He had to abandon his attempts to quantify his ideas when his cousin Francis Galton pointed out several egregious miscalculations. The solitary graph in Origin is easy enough for anyone to understand.
Darwin's theory is so unmathematical that scientists still argue over whether or not it qualifies as a theory. Ernst Mayr, an unabashed Darwinian, describes Origin as "one long argument," comparing it to a lawyer's brief rather than a set of postulates and laws. Without a rigorously definite foundation, the theory takes on the air of a narrative— something less than scientific, something assailable.
That very vulnerability encouraged many to attack. Even those who agreed with Darwin felt confident enough to
quibble over details. Maybe they knew Darwin was right about the fact that species change, but they could disagree with natural selection, his idea of how they changed. If they agreed with selection, they rejected his claims that change was gradual. When scientists disagreed with Darwin, they opened the way for nonscientists. If fault could be found among Darwin supporters, the religious detractors felt the theory was a sitting duck.
But the greatest damage to the Darwinian reputation was done by those who would co-opt evolution and natural selection for their own purposes. Darwin's theory was quickly adopted, misinterpreted, and rewritten to promote various unsavory ideologies. No one, certainly not Darwin, would argue there is any real value to social Darwinism. And we need not credit those who would support the role evolutionary theory played in the justification of the Nazi Holocaust.
The saddest yield of all this opposition is the misrepresentation of Darwin himself. He was a product of his times, certainly, and undoubtedly held imperialist and racist views when held to twenty-first-century standards of propriety. At the same time, he was profoundly antislavery, and he couldn't bring himself to entirely agree with his cousin Francis Galton on eugenics. Mainly, he was far from arrogant or egotistical; he was ambitious enough to know he had a good idea and cunning enough to set the stage for it. Still, he clung desperately to his Victorian sense of integrity and honor. He avoided the limelight, but I think he had something he desperately wanted to say about the world. I think he wanted to put us back into nature.
Darwin had a bad case of what E. O. Wilson calls "bio-philia." He couldn't look at nature without being absorbed by it, and he couldn't bring himself to feel above or separate from the creatures he saw around him. He saw no big jumps between us and the rest of animalkind; all of nature is made of the same stuff. The difference between a human mind and that of an orangutan was one of degree, not of kind.
This book is not a biography of Darwin, however. And Darwin probably was wrong about much of what he believed. The theory of evolution, like all theories, is larger than its originator. To meet the criteria of a great idea it must take on a life of its own, and evolution has certainly done that. It has built a science, several in fact, creating its own turmoil, without and within. Within biology, factions form to argue over whether species change suddenly or gradually. Other factions argue whether selection is the sole driving force, while others insist on giving it a minor walkon part. And then there are the outlyers, the creationists and intelligent-design supporters, always looking for a weak point to attack.
The following is a biography of this contentious theory, one that describes its genealogy, birth, growth, education, and its impact; perhaps not its death. Like all scientific theories, it had a long and gradual birth, and a great many premature deliveries. There were a lot of good ideas that laid the groundwork, and many of these same good ideas became bad ones that bogged down progress. But what made evolution such a good idea? How has it withstood critics in greater number and of greater passion than any other scientific concept?
Was this article helpful?