Why Questions About Darwin Just Won’t Go Away

The Rev. Alison Cornish and John Andrews

Feb 22, 2009 – 

I was a young man with uninformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like life like wildfire. People made a religion of them.

– Charles Darwin

Alison: Today we honor Charles Darwin, born in 1809, 200 years ago this month, and who published On the Origin of Species in1859, 150 years ago. Yet even before this anniversary year, Darwin is very much a part of our contemporary life through court cases, school boards, and a bevy of books. Much of this public debate tends to oversimplify the subject to ‘religion or Darwin’ or God/No God. Our take on ‘Why Questions About Darwin Just Won’t Go Away’ this morning isn’t about theism vs. evolution. Although the question of whether Darwin’s theory is consistent with traditional monotheism is interesting, I suspect it’s not all that important to most of the people in this room. Some of us are theists, some are not. Of those who do have the word ‘God’ in our personal vocabularies, I would say there’s a spectrum of views ranging from ‘Yes, God miraculously intervenes in human history’ to ‘God is a metaphor, a verb, a name for that which I cannot otherwise explain or understand.’ But I’ve never heard anyone connected to our congregation express doubt about evolution as articulated by Charles Darwin. Yet it is a challenge to live in a society where others think very differently about this subject (as our Constitution guarantees). In other words, this can’t just be about ‘we’re right and they’re wrong.’ It has to be about ‘we agree to disagree, but with respect, understanding, even appreciation even, dare we imagine, some common ground.’ So, John, can you think of ways that all of us the religious conservatives who are discomfited by the conclusions of Darwinian evolution, as well as religious liberals are all somehow touched by the questions that just won’t go away?

John: Yes. It seems to me that three main reasons jump out. The first and perhaps the most obvious is that evolution cuts ‘close to the bone’ psychologically. Most of us really don’t like the idea that we descended from other animals. It challenges the whole idea that we are only ‘a little lower than the angels.’

Alison: Ah, the whole ‘made in the image of God’ issue. But I really think that’s something that disturbs even those who are not theists. I think it applies to all people, whether or not they consider themselves to be religious. I agree, no matter how much Darwinism makes sense as science, most people feel a little queasy about the idea that we descended from animals. I am also intrigued by the idea that some of the religious discomfort about the theory of evolution is really about moving humanity away from the center of the story. Maybe we can touch on that point again later. But you had a second reason to offer Ö

John: The second reason is that many conservatives really do think that evolution is going to destroy something important. They’re convinced that it threatens not just religion but all morality. They fear it will leave us in the clutches of nihilism. From that point of view, evolution had better be false or our civilization is toast.

Alison: Again, I wonder if that concern is limited only to religious conservatives. One has to remember the startling impact of a theory that challenged the popular and long held idea that development of life on earth represents the unfolding of a coherent plan aimed at a predetermined goal. A fundamental assumption of Darwin’s theory was that natural selection worked on random variations, unguided by any central planner. I think this discomfort is still in play, and I don’t think you have to be a conservative Christian to feel uneasy about this. We all like a good story, one where order overcomes chaos, one that has meaning. For some, that means God is somehow in charge. Stated in 19th century Unitarian language ‘upward and onward forever.’ Idealistic, perhaps but also grand, and comforting. And, there is something disturbing about the fact that, if evolution is possible, so is devolution. In fact, Darwin said, rather disarmingly, that ‘death itself is a creative force in nature.’ Ug, no one wants to hear that! But you had yet another reason Ö

John: The third factor is brought in by militants on the other end of the spectrum. They agree with the conservatives that evolution is disastrous for religion, but they revel in the thought of religion’s demise.

Mix these three controversies up, and you have a political witches’ brew. It tends to heat up when we don’t have anything more pressing on our national agenda, such as war or economic depression. I would expect it to stay beneath the radar screen for a while, but it will be back!

Alison: Those are three good points, and we could spend all day on each one. I’d like to add one more for our consideration. Darwin’s theory was used by some social theorists to promote ideas that most of us find reprehensible. ‘Social Darwinism’ may be a misnomer, but it’s easy to see how the idea of natural selection could morph into ‘survival of the fittest,’ a phrase, by the way, that Darwin didn’t invent that’s from the philosopher Herbert Spenser. What Darwin did conclude was that ‘it may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest Ö ‘ By proposing that evolution worked primarily through the elimination of useless variants, Darwin created an image that could all too easily be exploited by those who wanted the human race to conform to their own pre-existing ideas. We know that there have been those who have taken his words to justify such things as rugged individualism and, more alarmingly, eugenics. John, can you speak directly to this question of ‘natural selection’ in a way that we laypeople might understand it?

John: Sure, Alison. At the outset, it’s important to note that Darwin didn’t discover evolution. What he did provide was a natural explanation for it. The theory rests on three ideas. The first point is that plants and animals produce more offspring than the environment can support. The second is that these offspring are not all identical. The third point is that because of their differences, some members of the new generation are better survivors than others. They are the ones that pass their characteristics on to the following generation. Had Darwin restricted his theory to relatively small changes, it would not have been startling at all. After all, humans have intentionally bred dogs as different as Chihuahuas and Great Danes by artificially selecting and breeding the particular animals that had the characteristics closest to what they wanted. The zinger in Darwin’s theory was that the analogous process of natural selection routinely causes one species to morph into another. This produces a ‘tree of life’ that is not just a classification scheme but a metaphor for real family relationships among all living things. We are all distant cousins.

It’s not hard to see why this sets traditionalists’ teeth on edge. Their dislike for Darwin’s theory, however, doesn’t alter the fact that it is true. That might sound like an arrogant scientist talking, but the evidence is not only overwhelming, it comes from a variety of sources all in agreement. The fossil record, the geographic distribution of similar species, the many instances in biology of what can only be called bad design, and the variations in genetic makeup all support Darwin’s ideas. This is not to say that the theory is complete. Controversies still rage, and it is possible, even likely, that the theory will need to be updated as time goes on. It is extremely unlikely, however, that natural selection as the main engine of evolution will ever be overturned, any more than we will one day discover that the earth doesn’t really go around the sun.

Alison: That’s really helpful, John. But now, how did we get from this rather benign description of a natural process to drawing moral conclusions such as survival of the fittest?

John: This wouldn’t be the first time that invalid arguments have been constructed that used scientific findings to justify social injustice, but it’s unfair to blame Darwin for that. Anti-evolutionists love to lump Darwin in with defenders of rugged individualism and even of slavery, when the fact is that he was strongly abolitionist in his views. He was quite careful not to confuse science with morality. The fact that something occurs in nature does not imply that it is always a good thing. Nor is something necessarily bad just because it isn’t natural.

Alison: Is that the only way that Darwin’s theory has been misused?

John: Not at all. It’s not just that science can’t tell us the way things ought to be. It can’t provide us with a complete knowledge of the way things are, either. Science explains mysterious, complex, higher-level phenomena in terms of more basic phenomena governed by accepted laws. This is what is meant by reductionism. Philosophers of science have long recognized that the reductionist program requires that some things be taken as givens, not themselves explained.

I’m therefore a strong advocate of keeping science within its proper bounds. Those bounds are simply defined. Science uses human experience as the basis for constructing theories capable of predicting other experiences. It is not the business of science either to prove or disprove the existence of beings outside nature. Any attempt to do that requires bringing in metaphysics.

If that’s an accurate view of what science is and has always been as long ago as the Middle Ages (when it was called natural philosophy), then it follows that the findings of science really ought not to be upsetting. So what if we descended from nonhuman creatures? Is that any worse than saying that the billions of cells in my body all descended from a blob of protoplasm?

This may seem cold comfort, but my point is that if you have good philosophical reasons for thinking that there is purpose in the universe, evolutionary science doesn’t disprove that.

Alison: Maybe we should, for the moment, set aside the idea of a purpose of the universe because that gets all wrapped up in the ‘God’ idea. What about the effect that the theory of evolution has on the place of human beings in the grand scheme of things? If we evolved from the lower species, doesn’t that mean that we aren’t, well, the center of it all?

John: Well, in one sense you can say that it’s not just Darwinism but the whole history of science that has relentlessly marginalized our role in the cosmos.

First the astronomers took the earth from the center and put it into orbit around a much bigger sun. The chemists figured out how to make in a test tube substances that were previously thought to be exclusive products of living things. Darwin came along and said we evolved via a mechanism that could be understood entirely in terms of natural causes. Edwin Hubble using the essential and largely unrecognized ideas of Henrietta Leavitt showed that not only are we riders on a small planet orbiting an ordinary star, but that star orbits a huge galaxy that is itself just one among billions in the observable universe. And for all we know, even that may be only a small part of everything that is.

That sounds pretty darn frightening.

It cannot be denied that science has made our universe larger and stranger. It has removed us from center stage. Indeed, it tells us that there is no center stage. Is that not proof enough of our insignificance?

I’m going to tip my hand here and say, No, I don’t think so.

Alison: Well, it could be that a hefty dose of humility might be called for these days Ö do you really think there’s something particular, and unique, about our place in the evolutionary story?

John: This may be good time to bring in Unitarian Universalism’s first principle. The inherent worth and dignity of every person is the cardinal affirmation on which our other six principles depend. In view of all I’ve said, can there be any basis at all, aside from wishful thinking, for asserting it?

I think there is.

We may be small in size, but we are special nevertheless. We have subjective, conscious experience the greenness of grass, the tinkle of bells, the smell of a rose, the pleasure of sex, the pain of torture, the joy of human bonding, the anguish of loss, the ‘aha’ experience when we solve a difficult puzzle. Equally special, we are able to pursue goals that go beyond mere self-preservation.

People may differ on whether there are other beings that share our gifts of consciousness and purpose. Space aliens? Angels? God? Do some of our cousins among the animals qualify? Perhaps dolphins create ballets and symphonies that we don’t yet appreciate. And if there is any other class of purposeful, sentient beings you think might exist, include them in as well.

Because the next thing I want you to do is imagine a universe in which there are no such beings. Such a world would be empty of meaning no joy, no awe, no hope, no love. In such a world however vast, however complex, however charged with energy nothing would matter. It is we perhaps together with other beings of similar or greater capacity who lend importance to events. We are indeed the measure of all things.

We can comprehend the awesomeness of the cosmos, the delightful intricacy of a flower. We can transcend our selfish genes. We can seek, we can approach, we can even, perhaps, sometimes attain the true, the beautiful, and the good. Therein lies our dignity.

Or, as Darwin said at the close of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’

I’ve just about used up my time talking about dignity. I’m sure you’d like to come back to morality. On that score, let me simply say that evolution often produces adaptations that are then put to very different uses in the next phase of the process. Our ability to build a culture had survival value, and so it evolved. But culture itself evolves in ways that are largely independent of genes. Out of that came the knowledge of good and evil. With that provocation, I’ll hand the baton over to you. Alison?

Alison: Your description of the role of humans as carrying the consciousness of creation is beautiful. It reminds me of the words of Annie Dillard which we’ve often spoken right here in this sanctuary ‘We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.’

John, I would add to your description of the ‘uniqueness’ of the human species in naming conscience, and that indeed connects with morality. Again, our knowledge may be limited, but as far as we know, we are the only species that has a sense of moral awareness about right and wrong, or of understanding what is actually our responsibility, and the impulses that move us to act. This indeed is a special charge and position, and one which, quite honestly, I think we tend to treat far too lightly or casually. For me, it’s fascinating to read from Darwin’s journals of his epic voyage on the Beagle and see, side-by-side with observations of fossils and plants and geological formations, his very personal responses to the conditions and acts of fellow humans.

In Brazil, Darwin witnessed the preparation of natives to be exported as slaves, and recorded ‘It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guiltyÖ ‘ In Chile, he saw miners, each carrying 200 pounds, and wrote ‘I am appalled at their conditions.’ In Argentina, he wrote ‘General Rosas is hired by the government to exterminate the Indians. I am a witness, but can do nothing.’ Each of these notations seems to me a window into Darwin’s deeply held concerns about the fair and compassionate treatment of all peoples, which appear side-by-side with his discoveries in botany, biology and paleontology. Had Darwin lived in another time, he might have been a gifted social anthropologist, combining the study of evolution with human behavior.

We started this exploration with asking if there might be common ground around the questions raised by Darwin’s theory ‘from all corners.’ It’s in John’s conclusions, and the words of Darwin himself, that I find a glimpse of an answer. We all want, I think, to directly experience the awesomely beautiful and complex nature of the world in which we live. And, we all yearn for the grand scheme of things to not just make sense, to have order, but also to enliven our consciences so that we might act for good. And, of this I am sure, we will need generous helpings of both consciousness and conscience in the times ahead.


Bowler, Peter J. ‘Darwin’s Originality,’ Science 323, 223 (2009), available at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/323/5911/223.

Coyne, Jerry. Why Evolution is True. (NY: Viking, 2009)

Coyne, Jerry. ‘Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail,’ The New Republic, February 4, 2009, 32-41.

Miller, Kenneth. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (NY: Viking, 2008)

Sis, Peter. The Tree of Life. (NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003)

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