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Letter: Darwin Day

Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 marks the 203rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. By one of those curious coincidences in history, it’s also the birthday of Charles Darwin. Whilst the former is well known to most Americans (hopefully), the latter has been obscured by misconceptions about the man and his work notwithstanding the growing popularity of Darwin Day in museums and other scientific, historical, and philosophical institutions around the world. It’s important that we know something about Darwin and Darwinism because they not only provide the basis for the modern natural sciences, but also shed light on such fields as economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, and history. This Darwin Day, let’s consider a few facts:

1. There’s no intrinsic philosophical contradiction between Darwinism and Christianity (or Judaism, Islam...etc.). Nothing in The Origin of Species or his other writings that is at odds with the fundamental principals and assumptions that circumscribe these faiths. Indeed, over the years there has been a growing body of work amongst scientists and theologians - especially in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions - to harmonize faith and the science of evolution. If these endeavors are unfamiliar it’s because media sensationalism has shown only the evolution vs. creationism debate that arises from militant atheists attempting to use Darwinism to disprove God’s existence and from fundamentalist sects who interpret Scripture literally and, consequently, fail to take into account the complexities of its multiple translations, metaphorical elements, historical and literary contexts, and theological nuances.

2. Darwin never claimed that humans were descended from apes (only that we have a common ancestor). Nor did he claim his theories could explain the origin of the universe or why we are here. Darwinism is a scientific discipline in particular and a philosophical school of thought in general, but it is not a religion and while it has some religious ramifications, it does not presume to draw direct theological conclusions.

3. Darwinism is chiefly at odds with Marxism. The former sees society as a result of human nature and the latter sees human nature as the result of society (especially economics). This is why, in spite of the stereotype and long association with religious fundamentalism, people of conservative political leanings and cultural tastes are just as likely to embrace Darwinism as people with more liberal and contemporary proclivities.

4. Darwin didn’t originate the idea of evolution. It began in ancient Greece and Rome, was revived during the French Enlightenment, and became popular in England during the Regency and Victorian periods. Darwin was the first to produce an observable mechanism - natural selection - whereby evolution might operate. Before Darwin, evolution was mere philosophical conjecture that could be reasonably opposed on scientific as well as theological grounds. After Darwin, evolution became a scientifically viable paradigm.

5. The supreme irony of Charles Darwin is that he ignited one of the greatest controversies in history but was himself, moderate in his views, conventional in his lifestyle, and somewhat introverted by nature. He regularly attended the Anglican church and was no secularist but had little interest in ecclesiastical dogma and whilst sympathetic to the Whigs (especially their abolitionism) wasn’t politically opinionated.

6. Although people associate evolution with dinosaur bones and ape-men skulls, most of the work done by Darwin and other early evolutionary biologists was undertaken studying the diversity of living species. Indeed, because of the mind-boggling diversity of insect life, many of the most ardent supporters of Darwinism were entomologists - a tradition that continues today.

What’s the best way to celebrate Darwin Day and pay honor to this extraordinary man’s contribution to human understanding? Visit a science museum.

Paul Manton
Levittown resident