There are two kinds of people in this world: those who celebrate Darwin Day, and those who don’t.
Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809-1882) is without doubt one of the most important scientists who ever lived. He is also one of the most controversial. First published in 1859, Darwin’s theory of evolution has proven to be one of the most groundbreaking achievements in the history of science. Not only did evolution establish a unique theoretical framework which subsequently gave rise to the field of modern biology—and a plethora of related scientific disciplines—but evolutionary theory also helped to advance a radical secular, scientific cosmology. In other words, evolutionary theory gave life to an entirely new way of looking at the world from a purely scientific perspective. This is why scientists make such a fuss about Darwin’s birthday.
Yet, is it precisely because of evolution’s secularizing propensity that it has proven to be such a persistently controversial scientific theory. Theologically-inclined folks tend to dislike Darwin and his irreligious ideas. Always have. Always will. Of course, some theologically-minded folks have found ways to maintain their religious faith, while also cultivating some level of conviction in Darwinian evolution. However, it is worth pointing out that Darwin himself was never able to artificially bifurcate his religious and scientific beliefs in that fashion; the young Charles Darwin was a faithful Christian, but the mature Darwin was a secular humanist.
In 1831, Darwin embarked on his historic journey on the HMS Beagle as a firm believer in creationistic principles. Like many natural philosophers of his day, Darwin believed that Genesis offered a literal version of Creation. However, as Darwin’s nearly five year circumnavigation unfolded, he encountered phenomena, such as the anomaly of ancient marine fossil beds that lay at the very peaks of the Andes, that rattled his faith in young earth creationism. Ultimately, Darwin’s creationist beliefs were completely undone by the creatures that he encountered in the Galapagos Islands.
Though he had witnessed many wonders during his travels, the bizarre menageries that Darwin encountered in the Galapagos exceeded anything that he had yet imagined. From giant tortoises to endless varieties of land crabs and snails, Darwin marveled at the seeming adaptability and (dare he think it?) mutability of the species that he observed. Perhaps as he gazed upon the spectacle of marine iguanas bobbing in the surf, Darwin gave thought to a new and unsettling idea. Just as Charles Lyell had suggested in his fascinating book about the earth’s geology, tiny and slow-paced changes had the net result, over the eons, of introducing extraordinary alterations to the earth’s geological features, might not the same be true for living organisms? In other words, could the tiniest physiological changes accumulate sufficiently across time to bring about the transmutation species?
Ultimately, these insights gave rise to Darwin’s unapologetically secular theory of evolution, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Variation: whether it’s dogs, grass, or fruit flies, organisms in any breeding population tend to vary from one individual to the next
2. Overpopulation: from oak trees to salmon, parents tend to produce more progeny than can survive to maturity
3. Struggle for survival: the overproduction of progeny tends to inspire high-stakes competitions to secure limited resources
4. Survival of the fittest: individuals with advantageous genetic traits enjoy an edge in the competition to secure scarce resources
5. Evolution through natural selection: winners of bio-ecological competitions survive and pass advantageous genetic traits to their offspring—which, in turn, brings about the gradual evolution of new species
Rarely do scientific theories elicit even the slightest attention from the general public. Apart from a few celebrated scientists, such as Einstein, the workaday world of science usually operates off the radar screen of public interest. Not so with Darwin. Evolutionary theory has inspired widespread acrimony from the moment of its first publication.
In addition to other objections, many people have been displeased with the idea that, within the confines of evolutionary theory, humans do not occupy any special pride of place. From Darwin’s perspective, humans were, quite simply, just another form of life (Darwin, 1871). Essentially, evolution postulates that humans exist because their ancestors, just like any other complex organism, randomly developed advantageous genetic traits. For those who are in need of a loftier sense of theological or philosophical purpose, they won’t get it from Darwin.
Furthermore, evolutionary theory also constitutes an unforgivable affront to anyone with an affinity for creationism. In Christian theology, God is not only the source of Creation, but God is also the most sacred being in the universe. By discounting the role that God plays in the origin of species Darwin’s theory has been attacked for being a slur upon the sanctity of creation and, worse, as an insult to God.
One might guess that after, more than 150 years of monumental scientific success, evolutionary theory would have won the public’s hearts and minds. Not so. In national public opinion surveys, slightly less than half of US adults generally report that they believe humans have evolved from some other species of animal (similar surveys conducted among scientists generally yield overwhelming support, in the range of +90%, for evolutionary theory). Given the, at best, tepid public support for evolutionary theory, legislators are often inspired to search for ways to undermine Darwinian evolution in the public sector, and their favorite place to attack evolution is in the classroom.
The most recent example of such an attack is currently underway in Indiana. On January 31, 2012, the Indiana State Senate passed Bill 89 which would allow local school districts to offer "instruction on the various theories of origins of life" which "must include theories from multiple religions." It will be interesting to watch the progress of this bill. Clearly, the goal of Indiana Senate Bill 89 is to challenge the privileged position that evolutionary theory currently occupies as an explanatory perspective in high school science classrooms—a privileged position, I should add, that evolution has earned by dint of being vetted and tested by more than 150 years of rigorous scientific research.
Nevertheless, should Indiana Senate Bill 89 move forward and be approved by the Indiana House of Representatives, the new law would have a devastating effect on Indiana’s high school science curriculum. Due to the onerous burdens created by No Child Left Behind and teaching to the test, it is already difficult enough for high school science teachers to shepherd their students through the jam-packed high school science curriculum. But just imagine if high school biology teachers were also required to include "instruction on the various theories of origins of life" which "must include theories from multiple religions" in their courses. High school biology would rapidly devolve from an exploration of biological science to a course on comparative religions—which, by the way, high school biology teachers are not trained to teach, nor should high school science students be required to study. If kids want to study religion, then they should take a course in religious studies, not biology.
If Indiana Senate Bill 89 is approved by the Indiana House of Representatives, then Darwinian evolution will once again need to demonstrate that it is the most effective, secular scientific theory that has ever been developed to explain the past, present, and future of life on the planet. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. Evolutionary scientists have enough work to do without taking time out of their lives and busy schedules to fight old battles that they have already won many times over. As I have argued elsewhere (McGettigan, 2011), the means through which beliefs are shaped—and hearts and minds are won—often has more to do with power than truth. Evolution may never win a popularity contest among the general public, but it will persevere and excel by doing precisely what it does best: finding better, more convincing ways to explain life, the universe, and everything through a scientific lens. If that rubs creationists the wrong way, then so be it.
May the fittest paradigm survive.
Darwin, Charles (1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.). London: John Murray.
Darwin, Charles (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
McGettigan, Timothy, 2011. Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
National Academy of Sciences. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008.
Timothy McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo.