Darwin ’s Daring Deed
Remember the Rev. Billy Sunday? He was a fiery evangelist in the early decades of the 20 th Century. He had a mouth on him that would have put many a sailor to shame! I can’t even repeat in polite society what he had to say about evolution. [“I don’t believe your old bastard theory of evolution either; I believe it’s pure jackass nonsense.” Seldes, Quotes, 331] But here’s what he had to say about clergy in the infamous year of 1925: “If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar!” [Woods, 301]
I mention that just so you’ll know exactly what kind of man is speaking to you this morning, for I intend to preach the praises not only of evolution, but also of Charles Darwin. I may be a “man of the cloth,” but unlike Billy Sunday, whenever I open a Bible to the creation story, I am careful not to close my mind to the mythical nature of what Ii read there.
I am also careful to stay informed as to what science says, so that I can distinguish “faith” from “fact.” That is something many Christian clergy fail to do. A classic example occurred the year following Darwin’s publication of on The Origin of Species. In June of 1860, a famous meeting took place at Oxford University. Speaking for the Church was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Defending the scientific view was biologist, philosopher and paleontologist Thomas Henry Huxley. After his savage speech denouncing Darwin and Huxley, Bishop Wilberforce asked the scientist: “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 grandmother?” The “audience greeted this with rapturous applause.” Huxley responded: “A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man who, not content with an equivocal success in his own sphere of [religious] activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance.” [I.e., the Bishop!] At this point “bedlam broke out...and ladies fainted from shock. From that moment the relationship of science to religion would never again be the same.” [Fadiman, revised ed., 283f.] To which I can only say, “Amen!”
I turn your attention to Charles Darwin not only because February 12 was the 194 th anniversary of his birth, but also because, while I am “preaching to the choir” here, there are others, “out there,” who have not yet gotten the message!
As you know, in that infamous year of 1925, the legislature of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, passed a law which declared:
It shall be unlawful for any teacher in...public schools in this state,...to teach the theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals. [Woods, 301]
Soon after there followed the equally infamous “Monkey Trial” of John T. Scopes, a biology teacher who did not want legislation to get in the way of education. He was defended by Unitarian Clarence Darrow, while the prosecution’s case was presented by William Jennings Bryan. [Foss, 19; cf. http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub/listaf.html] “In an epic confrontation, Darrow made Bryan a national laughingstock” by showing what ignorant nonsense his biblical literalism really was. [Spinrad, Almanac, 185f.]
That should have been the end. But it wasn’t. The controversy never went away. For decades it simmered just beneath the boiling point. Then, in the 1980s, a new variety of fundamentalists appeared calling themselves “Scientific Creationists.” They claimed that literalistic biblical creationism is not based on religion and ought, therefore, to be taught in schools. [Goodman] It took a court to show that any claim of divine creation is, inherently, a religious claim and not a scientific theory. [Gilkey; Tucker, “Creationism”]
Apparently a new generation of creationists has evolved enough to abandon that secular pretense. [Goodman] Now willing to call a belief a belief, a group of Christian lawyers has filed a claim against Texas Tech biology professor Michael Dini on behalf of 22-year-old student, Micah Spradling, a junior, who claims to be the victim of religious discrimination because the professor will not write him a letter of recommendation for graduate studies in the fields of science or medicine. Why not? Because the student has failed to meet the criteria Professor Dini established for qualifying to deserve such a letter. Those criteria are three:
By the way, far from being bigoted against religion, Professor Dini spent fourteen years in a Roman Catholic order of teaching brothers! [Goodman]
Moreover, far from being the open-minded defenders of academic freedom they claim, the Liberty Legal Institute of Texas lawyers are notorious for having fought to uphold anti-sodomy laws which make homosexuality illegal in Texas, and for having argued that removing a Ten Commandments monument from the statehouse grounds would amount to censorship of religious history. [Goodman]
If all this weren’t bad enough, Spradling and his lawyers have convinced that enlightened defender of our nation’s civil liberties--John Ashcroft—to have his Justice Department investigate Professor Dini! [Goodman; Madigan]
The only thing this student has proven so far is the truth of something else Thomas Henry Huxley said: “Teach a man to read and write, and you have put into his hands the great keys of the wisdom box. But it is quite another thing to open the box!” [Seldes, Thoughts, 219]
All of which brings us back to Charles Darwin.
Darwin was born February 12, 1809—the same day as that other “Great Emancipator” Abraham Lincoln. [McGlynn] Religiously, he was a Unitarian, having learned from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, that “Unitarianism is a featherbed to catch a falling Christian.” [Foss, 20] Theologically, he preferred being called a “Deist” or an “Agnostic.” “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God,” he wrote. [Seldes, Thoughts, 112]
Darwin wrote many books. The most influential was The Origin of Species by Means of NaturalSelection which he published in 1859. It was followed in 1871 by his almost equally important volume, The Descent of Man . [Magnusson, 387]
Darwin ’s theory of evolution immediately set off a firestorm of debate between defenders of religion and proponents of science. The impact of his thinking upon the field of biology was quickly grasped by the scientific community. It took a little longer for the public to understand that Darwin’s discovery changedeverything, not just biology! The American philosopher, John Dewey, tried to explain that in his 1910 book entitled The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. [Seldes, Thoughts, 111] In it he wrote: “The Origin of Species introduces a mode of thinking that…was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion.” [Ibid.]
Exactly how Darwin changed everything is not always obvious. To remedy this, in its July 2000 issue, the journal Scientific American published an article entitled “ Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought.” It was written by Harvard professor of evolutionary biology Ernst Mayr. [Mayr]
“Great minds shape the thinking of successive historical periods,” wrote Mayr. “Luther and Calvin inspired the Reformation; Locke, Leibniz, Voltaire and Rousseau, the Enlightenment. Modern thought,” he said, “is most dependent on the influence of Charles Darwin.” [Mayr, 79] Part of the reason for this is that Darwin’s basic ideas have been understood by the public, whereas the theories of other scientists (such as Einstein) have remained mysterious. [Ibid., 79f.]
According to Mayr, Darwin’s accomplishments were in three different fields: evolutionary biology, the philosophy of science, and the modern zeitgeist. [Ibid., 80]
[1.] As for evolutionary biology, Darwin founded it as a new branch of life science. To it, Darwin made four tremendous contributions.
First was his discovery of the “nonconstancy of species,” which is, simply put, “the modern conception of evolution itself.” Second was his “notion of branching evolution” which implied “the common descent of all species…from a single unique origin.” This replaced the old view of “linear evolution” which, from Aristotle onward, had imagined a “teleological march toward greater perfection.” Third was Darwin’s idea that “evolution must be gradual, with no major breaks or discontinuities.” Fourth, was Darwin’s discovery that the mechanism behind evolution is “natural selection.” [Ibid., 80; emphases added]
 With these four insights, Darwin founded a new branch of the philosophy of science which is the philosophy of biology. Mayr described five major elements of this new discipline. [Ibid.]
First , “ Darwin introduced historicity into science.” Whereas physics and chemistry had been pursued almost as if time were irrelevant, Darwin showed that biology must be an historical science because it must try to explain past events and processes based upon hypothetical historical “narratives” which must then be tested against all available evidence. (For example: a devastating epidemic, a catastrophic change of climate, and the impact of an asteroid have been the narratives proposed to account for the sudden demise of the dinosaurs.) According to Mayr, this use “of historical narratives,” “implies that the wide gap between science and the humanities...is actually nonexistent” for it has been bridged by evolutionary biology’s acceptance of time as the factor which makes change possible. [Ibid.; emphasis added]
Second , “the discovery of natural selection, (by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace”) constituted “an extraordinary philosophical advance” since nothing like it had been known before. It was able to explain “directional and adaptive changes” by a mechanism as simple as “the elimination of inferior individuals.” [Ibid.; emphasis added]
By being a two-stage process (initially involving a random production of a variety of individuals, and secondarily involving a nonrandom elimination of inferiors by what Herbert Spencer called the “survival of the fittest”) natural selection “settled the several-thousand-year-old argument among philosophers over chance or necessity.” Biological change is the result of both. [Ibid.]
The “truly outstanding achievement” of natural selection, however, was its elimination of any need to invoke “final causes” or “teleological forces” to explain change, as had been postulated by philosophers and theologians for 2,000 years. Darwin showed that in biology nothing is predetermined and that even the objective in natural selection changes as environmental circumstances vary. [Ibid.]
Third, Darwin’s recognition of the undeniable variety among the members of any species killed the old approach known as “typology.” It had been the false theologically motivated assumption that all the members of any species were essentially identical. [Ibid.]
A fourth new principle in the philosophy of biology that emerged from Darwin’s work (though he himself was not yet aware of it) was the recognition that, unlike inanimate objects, all biological entities have a dual nature. Not only are living things governed by the immutable laws of physics and chemistry, but also they are governed by their own genetic programs which are the result of the random action of natural selection. [Ibid., 81]
The fifth new principle Darwin brought to the philosophy of biology was his replacement of natural laws with concepts as the basis of biological theories. Whereas “in the physical sciences...theories are based on laws....in evolutionary biology...theories are largely based on concepts such as competition, female choice,
selection, succession and dominance.” This change accompanied a methodological move away from experimentation toward “observation, comparison...classification...[and] the testing of competing historical narratives.” [Ibid.]
 All these changes in evolutionary biology and the philosophy of science dramatically altered the Zeitgeist or worldview of most modern educated people. Before Darwin “virtually all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men” who believed they lived in a world “created by God” who had “instituted wise laws that brought about the perfect adaptation of all organisms to one another and to their environment.” Moreover, they believed that a supernatural teleological and deterministic force was at work bringing harmony and perfection to the world. Everything Darwin did contradicted such beliefs. [Ibid.]
Ernst Mayr listed six major changes in our modern zeitgeist that derive from Darwin:
First, Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically. It no longer requires God as creator or designer (although one is certainly still free to believe in God even if one accepts evolution)... [Ibid., emphasis added; Cf. Goodman]
Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day. [Ibid.]
“Second, Darwinism refutes typology.” The previous view was that members of each biological class are “identical, constant, and sharply separated” from the members of all other classes. [Ibid., emphasis added] Recognition of variation made typology untenable which is extremely important because typological thinking contained the false notion that human “races” are inherently separate and different from one another—an idea which lies at the heart of racism. Darwin replaced typological thinking with “population thinking.” It sees groups of living organisms as populations which consist of uniquely different individuals. It also recognizes that populations change over time. [Ibid., 82]
“Third…natural selection made any invocation of teleology unnecessary.” In the place of a supernatural “final cause,” Darwin put the natural “genetic program” that exists in all living creatures as the real reason they develop the way they do. Not only in biology, but in all of its other fields as well, “modern science...is unable to substantiate the existence of any such cosmic teleology” as philosophers and theologians used to describe. [Ibid., emphasis added]
“Fourth, Darwin does away with determinism.” One of the two steps in natural selection depends upon “randomness and chance.” “Despite the initial resistance by physicists and philosophers [e.g., Einstein’s “God does not play dice.”], the role of contingency and chance in natural processes is now almost universally acknowledged.” “Probabilistic terms” have replaced the old language about immutable natural laws. “Nearly all so-called biological laws have exceptions...[such that] Karl Popper’s famous test of falsification...cannot be applied” to them. [Ibid., emphasis added]
“Fifth, Darwin developed a new view of humanity and, in turn, a new anthropocentrism.” Before Darwin it was believed religiously that humans were “above and apart from other living things.” “But biologists [like Huxley]...revealed through rigorous comparative anatomical study that humans and living apes clearly had common ancestry,” an assessment strengthened by recent genetic research. That fact combined with Darwin’s “theory of common descent...deprived man of his former unique position.” A new anthropocentrism has therefore arisen based not on any difference in kind between humans and animals, but on their differences in degree in such things as intelligence, language, culture, and ethics, all of which still indicate the vast superiority of humans to animals, but not any absolute uniqueness. [Ibid., emphasis added] (This view, I might add, is expressed in our own Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle which affirms and promotes “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” [Singing, x]
“Sixth, Darwin provided a scientific foundation for ethics.” [Ibid., emphasis added] The “old thesis of Social Darwinism” (as propounded at the end of the 19 th century by Herbert Spencer) had falsely asserted individualistic selfishness because it was “based on an incomplete understanding of animals, particularly social species.” Now it is well understood that entire social groups “can be the target of natural selection.” (Darwin, in fact, had said this about people in 1871.) Even more important, modern research has shown that natural selection favors the existence of altruism. Why? Because “the survival and prosperity of a social group depends to a large extent on the harmonious cooperation of the members of the group.” This fact provides a biological basis for ethics. [Ibid., 83]
Ernst Mayr concluded his article on Darwinian evolution by saying: “There is grandeur in this view of life.” [Ibid.] I completely agree!
I wish I could also agree with something else Mayr wrote: “No educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact.” [Ibid.] Unfortunately, the persecution of Professor Dini is proof that Mayr overstated the way things are.
In her own article about Professor Dini’s case, columnist Ellen Goodman asked: What is the “next stop, astrology for astronomers? Feng Shui for physicists?” [Goodman]
I tell you this: it will be, if those of us who know better fail to defend Darwin’s daring deed!
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Madigan, Nick. “Professor Draws Inquiry for Snubbing Creationist Students.” The Ledger.
3 February 2003. A12.
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