What’s So Dangerous About Darwin?

Amy Zucker Morgenstern Reverend Amy Zucker Morgenstern
February 12, 2006
Palo Alto, CA

I suppose one trouble with Darwinism is that … everyone thinks [they understand] it. It is, indeed, a remarkably simple theory … But we have good grounds for believing that this simplicity is deceptive. Never forget that, simple as the theory may seem, nobody thought of it until Darwin and Wallace in the mid-nineteenth century … How could such a simple idea go so long undiscovered by thinkers of the calibre of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume and Aristotle? Why did it have to wait for two Victorian naturalists? What was wrong with philosophers and mathematicians that they overlooked it? And how can such a powerful idea go still largely unabsorbed into popular consciousness?

It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.1
from The Blind Watchmaker, by the zoologist Richard Dawkins.

It was one hundred and ninety-seven years ago today that the fifth child was born to Susannah and Robert Darwin of Shrewsbury, England, and they named him Charles. Fifty years later, he published a book that shook foundations of thought far from his own field of naturalism, and is shaking them still. Religions immediately saw a conflict with many of their beliefs grappled with it and some are locked in a life-and-death struggle with evolution to this day, especially here in the United States. Others adjusted to it. We are one religious tradition that embraced it. We, also, are children of the 19th century, and the discovery of evolution was a key ingredient of Unitarian Universalism’s adolescent years. We have something to tell the world about how religion and science need not fight, but are partners in our search for what is true and beautiful. It is my hope that we will honor Darwin’s brilliant insight, and our own tradition, by sharing the good news. Yes, you heard it here: an evangelical sermon in favor of evolution.

Before that, some talk about what the good news is … and to do that, we need to know what the bad news is.

It is a sad thing to say to someone on his birthday, but the name of Darwin, in many circles, is a dirty word. The latest round of creationism vs. evolution was fought last year, and evolution won again; the designers of “Intelligent Design” or “ID” will have to go back to the drawing board, or, more likely, regroup and rename their “theory” (and I use the term very loosely). This round is over, although since — as the judge in the Dover, Pennsylvania, case pointed out — the same attempt was made under the name of “creationism,” then “creation science,” we can expect that now that ID has been ID’d as just another disguise for Biblical fundamentalism, no doubt the Discovery Institute will put on another disguise and try again. But our courts have been quite strong and consistent about keeping religious indoctrination in any guise out of secular classrooms.

So that’s not what’s worrying. What’s worrying is the incredible scientific ignorance revealed by this debate. Thirty-seven percent of Americans believe that evolution should not be taught in the schools. [[not ref]] And this a struggle that is far from over: not the struggle in the schools, I mean, but the struggle in our minds.

Why evolution? Why is this battle being fought in biology, rather than, say, physics? The latter possibility was suggested by a parody in the spoof newspaper The Onion: “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory.” According to this theory (which is very hard to disprove), things fall down not because of a force called “gravity,” but because God pushes them. It goes on to marshal evidence from the Bible and to point out unresolved conflicts that exist within physics, and of course to offer the solution: the unified force physicists seek is called Jesus.2

I’m sure the article is pinned to many an office door in both physics and biology departments across the country. The fact that a debate continues in biology that has long been put to rest in physics — the fact that it is Darwin’s name, not Newton’s, that has become a dirty word to one side of the “culture wars” — must perhaps be put down to the unpredictable eddies and streams of history. The idea that humanity is not the goal and pinnacle of creation, but one of evolution’s sublime accidents, threatens our sense of supremacy, already on shaky footing after the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo that removed us from our place in the center of the universe. And there’s nothing surer to start a fight than making allegations about one’s ancestors. Darwin’s contemporaries took it quite personally — Bishop Wilberforce famously asked “If anyone were to be willing to trace his descent through an ape as his grandfather, would he be willing to trace his descent similarly on the side of his grandmother3   — and our place among, not above, the rest of the animal kingdom seems to rankle many among us, over a hundred years later.

But as the revolution in astronomy showed, people adjust to huge changes in worldview, and so do religions. Even the Catholic Church has apologized to Galileo’s memory. What is it about Darwin’s idea that persists in making it, in the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s words, “dangerous”? What is so dangerous about Darwin?

I see two things: dangers that are widely perceived out in our culture, dangers to which we can respond from our faith perspective.

Darwin’s theory explicitly contradicts the Bible and therefore forces people to reconsider their allegiance to a literal reading of their holy book. More fundamentally, what it is doing there is forcing them to doubt, even discard, one of their sources of knowledge about the world — their best source of knowledge about the world. That is very terrifying. Imagine that you were told that every source of your daily news, your information about what is happening in the world — whether it comes to you in print, over the internet, over the radio waves — was invented out of whole cloth by creative minds. Imagine how disorientated and afraid you would feel. How would you find out what was going on? How much of your previous knowledge was in fact a myth? And what other sources of knowledge might turn out to be just as unreliable? Is there anything or anyone left that you can trust?

When you think how terrifying such a situation would be, it’s easier to see why some people for whom the Bible has been a steadfast source of knowledge cling to any explanation that will allow them to dismiss Darwin’s dangerous idea. Many adjust, but many do not. Some have even rewritten Darwin’s life story to include a deathbed recantation to a Lady Hope. In some versions, he bemoans his followers who have made his mistaken ideas “into a religion.” (It sounds like somebody is thinking ahead to a possible court-case argument.) This hoax originated (perhaps with Lady Hope herself, perhaps not) shortly after Darwin’s death, and has been widely believed and repeated. It’s been categorically denied by his son when it was first circulated in 1887, and by his daughter when it resurfaced in 1922, and even by creationists who don’t want their cause undermined by false arguments. But it has made a comeback again and again; in the 1950s, 1980s, and I’ve seen it quoted as fact on the internet in the past few months. Never mind that a deathbed recantation, even if it existed, would not undo the scientific proofs that have been offered.

When wishful thinking is so powerful that it overrides obvious facts, it tells us that the idea that has been unseated is very, very dear to someone. So, danger #1 of Darwin: he unseated a source of authority that for many people is still the source, leaving them no basis for understanding the world, no way to make decisions about competing claims to truth. No wonder many dismiss evolution as “just a theory.” They don’t know how to sort out good theories from bad.

The other thing that is dangerous about Darwin is that his theory appears to remove all meaning from our lives. It replaces purpose with randomness.

The particularly tricky thing about this danger is not only that it is false, but it is perpetuated by those who support Darwin’s theory as well as those who oppose it. I’m not going to get into a book-length explanation of evolutionary theory, but as Dawkins says, it is at the core a simple idea, and I can put this part of it into two simple paragraphs.

The world generated by natural selection is not random. It is — we are — the product of orderly processes. This was subtly illuminated by that Onion parody: one reason the joke works is not that biology and physics are so different but because they’re so much alike. Both show what happens when random occurrences meet inexorable rules. You get order, you get apparent design, but there need be no mind doing the designing.

In the case of physics, one such law is gravitation, or as we observe it in everyday life, “Things fall down.” In the case of biology, one such law is, “If your characteristics fit you for survival, you are more likely to survive to perpetuate those characteristics.” Random events figure into both, but the lesson to take from evolution is not that life is generated and refined through completely random events. Those are words put into Darwin’s mouth by people who fear and misunderstand him, and if those of us who do not fear him misunderstand him as well, we are unlikely ever to straighten out the story.

But even once we clear up the randomness misunderstanding, we do take from Darwin, as people fear, as people charge, a universe without design — a universe in which the individual elements, unlike human-made artifacts, were not specifically designed with a particular aim in mind.

So, Darwin poses two dangers: evolution leaves us with no authoritative source of knowledge, and life as described by natural selection has no purpose.

Well, if these things were true, I’d be scared too. I might even start believing obvious hoaxes like the one that my enemy took back all his dangerous ideas on his deathbed. But they are not true, and if anything awakes an evangelical fervor in me, it is the desire to tell the world why. We are a religion that specifically embraces the teachings of reason and science among our sources of spiritual insight. We have some good news for the world!

I am an evangelist for this point of view: that “just because” is not a reason to believe something; that “the Bible tells me so” is not proof that one possesses a revelation from the Creator of the universe — or that there is a Creator of the universe; that “because I want to” is not a valid justification for one’s moral choices; and that an honest “I don’t know” is the beginning of wisdom and the road to all knowledge. I will evangelize for that point of view. So here is the good news about danger #1:

Scientific inquiry is not the enemy of religion. It is one of religion’s tools.

Look at the kind of scientist Darwin was. He wasn’t the stereotyped guy in the white lab coat, running experiments with bubbling beakers. He was a naturalist: the kind of scientist who observes the flora and fauna of the world (mostly fauna in Darwin’s case) and draws conclusions based on his or her observations. This approach works for religion as well. We apply it here every day. We observe the world; we draw conclusions about it based on what we observe; we speculate, sometimes wildly, sometimes just guessing; and then we test our speculations by comparing them to what we see and feel and hear.

“Should I sit in the meditation group? Will meditation make me feel more calm and be more aware, the way it claims?” Well, I’ll try it, and I’ll find out, and then I’ll know.

“I’m very concerned about a friend of mine who’s in deep distress. I’m scared even to call her. Will prayer do any good in the world at all?” Well, I pray for her, and you know, I actually feel a little braver, enough to call her on the phone, now, and that makes her feel better, so I have an answer.

We hear on Sunday morning claims from the pulpit that we then go away and think about. “Do they match up with my experience?” If so, then they are likely to be true; if not, then no.

This is not the only way to knowledge, nor the only valid way to knowledge. But it is a very important one, and one that is not limited to the realms of biology, geology, chemistry, and the like. It works in spiritual life as well.

We observe, we ask questions, we make intelligent hypotheses, we test the hypotheses … Many people recoil at calling this “scientific” when it is in the realm of religion, but it is a scientific process, even if it does not fall into the categories spelled out in a university’s sciences division.

What of danger #2, the charge that evolution robs our lives of purpose and meaning?

What we say to that, again, with what we do every day as people in a Unitarian Universalist church, is: we can perceive life as beautiful, and astonishing, and meaningful without ever resorting to a conscious designer. In the words of the hymn we will shortly sing, knowledge need not drive wonder from the world — quite the opposite.

I invite you to reflect on the moments that you have felt most full of wonder at the natural world, at the things that have been revealed by your explorations. It is a deep, often unspoken — too often unspoken — faith of our religion that the more we learn, the more wondrous the world appears to us. That’s just what we have found: that knowledge itself creates the sense of purpose that many believe Darwin stole from humanity. This is one of the best pieces of news we can bring to the 37% of Americans who are so fearful of evolution that they think it should not be taught in the schools.

Not that the creationist/ID folks are against knowledge. I’m sure they would say that they long for, and have access to, a kind of knowledge that overly questioning minds lack: the knowledge that the Creator of the Universe created his world with them in mind, and with a plan for their eternal happiness. But they might charge — if I may outrageously put words into strangers’ mouths — that the kind of knowledge to which we Unitarian Universalists sing hymns, the unrest and discontent and search, is a pretty poor substitute. We may say it reveals more wonders and gives our lives meaning. An opponent might argue that the kind of knowledge that can be tested just like a hypothesis in a chemistry lab is as cold and indifferent to human purposes as the universe that the theory of natural selection describes. That our kind of knowledge is joyless and meaningless.

Well, here we are to show that it isn’t.

Or are we? Do we live as if our lives are filled with a sense of meaning? Does the beauty of the atom, the grace of a swallow’s flight, cause our faces to shine? Does the sense of belonging to a world brimful of incredible creatures and processes show in our Sunday services, does it bubble up in our chatter as we leave the hall, or, as another possibility, are we so transformed by joy that we leave here solemn and silent? If the world described by Darwin is so awe-inspiring, that awe should be apparent in our voices and our actions and our words.

Otherwise, we show that we deserve the old label “corpse-cold Unitarianism,” and that our worldview is grim and dreary. We know it isn’t! So we need to say exactly that.

If we fall silent because we think “we’ve won,” or because we think people who don’t understand evolution are too ignorant to be bothered with, the good news we have will continue to be upheld in the courts (I hope) but disappear from public knowledge. Not much of a victory. Most people have no idea that there is a religion that explicitly uses the same methods as evolutionary biology and hails as holy the things that these methods reveal. If people don’t know we exist, many of them will continue to be forced to choose between a religion that gives them meaning and a scientific theory that takes it away — and who could blame them for sticking by their religion and shutting their eyes to the theory? We need to tell people, “We have both.”

For closing, let me give you evangelical inspiration from an unlikely source. Richard Dawkins, whose words you heard earlier, would describe himself as an enemy of religion. He’s a professor at Oxford University who likes to term himself “the devil’s chaplain” and give university theology departments a hard time for teaching a subject with no content. (I’m not making that up. Unitarians in Britain clearly don’t spread the word so well either, if he still doesn’t know that there is such a thing as a religion without supernaturalism. But he doesn’t.) Nevertheless, this story may inspire you.

When The Blind Watchmaker was first published in the United States … I did a number of radio phone-ins. I had been warned to expect hostile questioning from fundamentalist listeners and I confess I was looking forward to destroying their arguments. What actually happened was even better. The listeners who telephoned were genuinely interested in the subject of evolution. They were not hostile to it, they simply did not know anything about it. Instead of destroying arguments, I had the more constructive task of education the innocent. It took only minutes to awaken them to the power of Darwinism as a convincing explanation of life. I got the impression that the only reason they had not seen its possibilities before was that the subject had been totally omitted from their education. Aside from some vague nonsense about “monkeys,” they simply did not know what Darwinism was.

I was reminded of the creationist student who, through some accident of the selection procedure, was once admitted to the Zoology Department at Oxford University.

— he has an acid tongue, doesn’t he? &mdash

He had been educated at a small fundamentalist college in the United States and had emerged a simple, young Earth creationist. When he arrived in Oxford, he was encouraged to attend a course of lectures on evolution. At the end he came up to the lecturer (who happened to be me), beaming with the primal joy of discovery: “Gee,” he exulted, “This evolution! It really makes sense.”4

It makes sense. It makes sense of our world … it helps us to make sense of what happens to us, where we came from and where we might be going … it makes beauty and order evident … In all these ways it is not the opposite of religion, but something that does the same work that religion, our religion, does in our lives. So let’s spread the word! Let’s sing the praise! Praise be to this world of wonders, and to everything that opens our eyes to its amazing works.


Notes
1 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York, London: Norton, 1996), xv..
2Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity with ‘Intelligent Falling Theory,’” The Onion, August 17, 2005, Issue 41-33, http://www.theonion.com/content/node/39512.
3 J. R. Lucas, “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter,” http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html, The notorious inquiry as to whether his debate opponent, Thomas Huxley, was descended from a monkey via his grandfather or grandmother, appears to be the embellishment of legend.
4 Introduction, The Blind Watchmaker, xi..

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