Saturday, March 7, 2009

More on Darwin

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Taking Darwin Personally

Weekend Edition Sunday, February 15, 2009 · I used to teach a wonderful college course called Origins. In it, we'd ponder the origins of the universe, the origins of nations, the origins of language, the origins of faith, the origins of humankind.

We'd read about the cities of Mesopotamia and the spread of monotheism. We'd explore Yeats' poetry and Faulkner's prose. We'd study Galileo's struggle for truth over dogma, and Leakey's discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.

Everything would go swimmingly until we hit Darwin. And while many students treated his Origin of Species the same way they did Newton's work on gravity or Einstein's theory of relativity, others got upset. There'd be anger, even tears. Once, a much-pierced, much-tattooed young woman stormed out of the classroom, saying "I am NOT kin to a monkey."

Evolution hurts people's feelings. Nobody denies that cells divide or that light travels 186,000 miles per second.

Evolution's different. People take evolution personally.

This is largely an American phenomenon. Europeans can't for the life of them figure out why we pitch a hissy fit over evolution. They seem quite happy that the Age of Reason superseded the old theocratic world view. But some Americans still implicitly accept the Great Chain of Being. God perches at the top, then angels, then man (often literally men — women get shoved down a notch), then animals, bugs, plants, rocks. No fraternizing.

Americans see themselves as a people apart, living in a chosen nation.

We are a chosen species. If humans and apes descend from a common ancestor, well, then we're mere mammals. Not the measure of all things, not the pinnacle of creation.

But does accepting our place in the animal kingdom make us any less miraculous? The human brain evolved to remember the past. We can imagine the future. We can make worlds with our heads and our hands. We can delight in the stars of the night sky and know that we are made of the same stuff as they are. We are part of nature — we lose nothing by admitting it.

Diane Roberts is a writer living in Tallahassee, Fla.

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Darwin, Britain's Hero, Is Still Controversial In U.S.

Weekend Edition Sunday, February 8, 2009 · This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and to say Darwin mania is gripping England does not overstate the case.

The Royal Mint has created a Darwin coin, the Royal Mail has made a Darwin stamp set, and there are countless lectures and exhibitions throughout the country.

Bob Bloomfield is in charge of Darwin200, a program coordinating the celebration. He says there's even a group of knitters paying tribute to Darwin.

"The group created artistic knitted elements which are evocative of evolution processes," says Bloomfield. "Similarly there's a very small group also doing quilts which are doing a Bayeux tapestry of the Beagle voyage."

Portrait of Charles Darwin, from the late 1830s

This portrait of Charles Darwin was painted by George Richmond in the late 1830s, around the time Darwin was fleshing out his theory of evolution. Creative Commons

In other words, Darwin is not the controversial figure in the United Kingdom that he continues to be in the United States. Bloomfield says the reason for this is science has proved Darwin right.

"Unless you want to disregard the weight of evidence, there's not really a controversy," says Bloomfield. "Most difficulties come from people who have a fixed perspective on either the nature of time or either the created nature of the natural world."

But in Britain, even those who see the hand of a creator in the natural world don't have a problem with Darwin. The reason is that science and religion answer different questions, says the Right Rev. Lord Harries of Pentregarth, a member of the House of Lords and the former bishop of Oxford for the Church of England.

"Science is trying to address the question, 'How do things happen?'" says Harries. "In answer to that you get the theory of evolution. Things happen gradually over a very long period of time by natural causes. But if you ask 'Why did things happen?' Then you get a completely different answer."

A sketch of Darwin's evolutionary tree from his 1837 notebook.

A simple sketch drawing from Darwin's 1837 notebook lays out his revolutionary idea: that a various species branch out — evolve — from a single common ancestor. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

It's the why of life that belongs in the spiritual domain. Harries believes the problems some religions have with Darwin and evolution come from a literal interpretation of the Bible. According to Harries, while the Bible contains profound truths, it is not word for word true.

"First of all, take the issue of the age of the Earth," says Harries. "Do people really think that the universe is only 4,000 years old when every science — chemistry, paleontology, physics, astronomy … points to, with substantial evidence, to the Earth being billions of years old and the universe more than billions of years old. So you have to ask people, do you think that the vast majority of scientists … are liars?"

The Rev. Malcolm Brown says the Church of England did have problems with Darwin's theory at first, but quickly realized it was not an attack on Christian faith. Nevertheless, by getting the first reaction wrong, "We legitimized, to some extent, later movements, particularly in the United States during the early 20th century, to raise creationism as an ideology and make Darwin a whipping boy."

The creationist ideology, now repackaged as a theory known as intelligent design, still runs strong in certain parts of America.

The University of Kansas in Lawrence actually has one of the 1,250 copies that make up the first edition of On the Origin of Species. But unlike in England, where it seems every scrap of Darwin memorabilia is on public display, this copy of the first edition stays mainly in the vault.

Leonard Krishtalka is a paleontologist and head of the natural history museum on campus. Krishtalka knows the book, with its notions about how life appeared on Earth, is threatening to some people. And even though Kansas has grabbed headlines with its fights over teaching intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin's theories in schools, it's not a problem unique to Kansas.

"There are actually 34 states in the United States that have passed anti-evolution laws of one kind or another," says Krishtalka, "whether it's stickers in textbooks or warnings that 'Reading this book with be injurious to your mental health," whether it's California or Alabama or Louisiana. For the record, in Kansas, the teaching of evolution in schools never stopped because all of the regulation and rules that the anti-evolution segment of the Kansas City Board of Education tried to get through were never enacted."

But the fight continues. It's not a scientific fight. Science has already proclaimed Darwin the winner. It's a social tug of war. A tug of war that started 150 ago and shows no signs of abating.

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