So, to get things off on the right footing we wanted to kick off by understanding Darwin's work and contribution properly. But first, a bit of fun. If you're not familiar with the Darwin Awards, click on the picture and it'll take you to a tongue-in-cheek ode to those who's foolishness has ultimately self-selected themselves permanently out of the human gene pool. There are some classic near-miss stories too (my favourites are often the burglars and other petty crime capers gone wrong). Enjoy...and then we'll get into it.
I was walking home from work recently and saw these monstrosities in a shop window. Who gives someone a 30,000 piece jigsaw? Surely that's the sort of gift you'd give someone you hate? Nevertheless, it did set me thinking about the origins debate.
We all have the same evidence before us, but the way we interpret it differs wildly. It's exactly the same as with a jigsaw - you assemble the pieces based on what you believe the picture on the box looks like. That picture becomes the mental model that defines how you assemble the pieces. The origins debate is much like that - our starting assumptions are key to how we approach the evidence.
One of the key assumptions that Darwin was wrestling with was the idea that everything around us - every flower and insect we see, every breed of dog, cow, fish, and bird we know - we specially created by God.
It's an idea that's referred to as the "Immutability of the Species" - basically, the idea that each individual species on the planet was specially created by God and could never fundamentally change.
Yet, on Darwin's voyage with the HMS Beagle, he began to notice tiny variations between species of birds (finches in particular) sharing the islands. Then he noticed similar minor variations in traits for other species on separate bodies of land and it became increasingly obvious to him that these species of birds were in fact related, not isolated 'special creations.' That was the catalyst that led to the formulation of his theories (it's worth acknowledging other scientists had developed the same essential idea as natural selection, but Darwin formulated in what was perhaps the most succinct and accessible way).
Check out these two youtube videos for a really great explanation and overview of his voyage and his work.
Darwin proposed three essential ideas based on his research:
- Species are not immutable (fixed) - they do change
- Species develop through natural selection, favouring the best adapted kinds ('survival of the fittest')
- This process forms a branching tree of descent that can be extended to all life
Up until then, it had been commonly held that everything that existed - every bump and every life-form was a hand-made specimen, specifically crafted by God. Suddenly that assumption could be called into question.
After domestication, humans bred over 400 types of dog within a single century. This is natural selection at work, but it isn't evolution. You can see the links in the following charts.
- If all species of animals have a common ancestor, what about humans?
- So if evolution can happen within species, could it not happen across species?
- If animals evolved by selected mutations across species (transmutation), could humans trace our descent back to the animal kingdom?
One of the other key charges that is often levelled against Darwin and Darwinian evolution by the Christian community is that it is inherently racist - with the implication that it was a racial prejudice of Darwin's own that informed his work.
While Darwin's theories have certainly been (mis?)used to justify racial agendas, it might not be entirely fair to place this charge entirely on Darwin's shoulders. Let's explore.
It's correct that Darwin saw slavery as an inherent part of Natural Selection, but found it abhorrent when he came into personal contact with it. Darwin writes in his follow-up text, The Descent of Man:
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes [Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Orangatans] will no doubt be exterminated.
The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”
– The Descent of Man, Chapter 6.
Most of those who criticise Darwin for racism aren't aware that Darwin’s family helped fund and support William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery work. Darwin himself was opposed to slavery and found it repulsive, yet he also saw it as an inherent part of natural selection.
“Slavery, although in some ways beneficial during ancient times, is a great crime; yet it was not so regarded until quite recently, even by the most civilized nations.
And this was especially the case, because the slaves belonged in general to a race different from that of their masters. As barbarians do not regard the opinion of their women, wives are commonly treated like slaves.”
- Descent of Man, Chapter 3
The real tragedy is what others did with Darwin's work - and the atrocities they used it to justify.
“Bravery, cunning and competition are virtues…
Darwin must become the new religion of Germany…
the racial struggle is necessary for mankind.”
– Otto Ammon, Author of "Natural Selection among Humans" (1883)
Darwin's work was used to horrendous purpose to justify the Nazi regime as they worked to exterminate the lesser races. Which brings us to a critical question:
Otherwise the same criticism must be leveled at God on an even grander scale.
Darwin's work really was insightful and on the theory of natural selection - variation within species as a result of increasing isolation in the gene pool - he saw something that many others of his time could not.
In reality, Darwin highlighted God's genius by placing sufficient genetic information within the cellular structure of each species that they could survive, adapt, and thrive as the ecology and physical and social environment around his creations changed. It's brilliant; but it's not evolution.
The fact that there is change and adaptation within species is a fact we all agree on. We can quickly breed different forms of dogs by manipulating the breeding pairs. The same thing happens in nature as animals become dispersed over team and draw on smaller breeding pools, with different traits being more inclined to thrive in different environmental conditions. However you can't turn dogs into fish that way; you can't cross the boundary between animal kinds (the word the Bible uses).
Darwin didn't have the same insight into the research into genetic mutations that we do, which we'll talk about in a future thread. As he was wrestling with the problem of providing credibility to the possibility of evolution across species, he described what he saw as the two biggest problems for his theories:
Lack of ‘transitional forms’
“Why if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see inumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of the species being well defined?”
– Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species, Ch 6, p102 (1982).
“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances, for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration could have been formed by natural selections seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
But when it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned around, the commonsense of mankind declared the doctrine false.”
– Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species, Ch 6, p111 (1982).
The majority of the world believes this is exactly what has happened since.
Others feel the opposite is true and the broader theory of evolution is less credible than it's ever been.
What do you think?