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Why Attack Darwinism?
Paul Handford, Zoology Department, U.W.O, Canada, October 1997

Since Darwin's arguments concerning the origin and diversification of life on earth were published, over 120 years ago, they have continued to evoke criticism, both sober and virulent, learned and ignorant, constructive and destructive. It is of interest to ask why this should be so. Below, an explanation is offered.

That a scientific hypothesis should elicit vigorous discussion among scientists is a sure sign of its scientific merit: it thereby shows its fecundity in the stimulation of rational thought; and science progresses most surely through the ruthless scrutiny of ideas and their honest comparison with the observable world. By this criterion, Darwin's hypothesis has been monumentally successful: not only has it been the focus of virtually continuous activity, but it has withstood, almost unscathed, repeated tests of argument and observation, so that now it provides the intellectual tradition under which virtually all modern biologists operate. Research in biology has turned the idea of an ancient origin of life on earth, followed by its myriad diversification into the forms observable as living things and fossils, and their adaptation to their local circumstances, from a plausible hypothesis into a scientific fact as real as are our galaxy, the solar system, a spherical earth, continental drift, genes, atoms and subatomic particles. What remain hypothetical are the processes by which evolutionary change has been, and continues to be, brought about. These matters are, indeed, still being debated by concerned biologists, as the pages of many contemporary scientific journals attest; but the scientific fact of evolutionary change and diversification is no longer seriously questioned by those aware of the relevant empirical observations, and with a determination to use rational thought (the hallmarks of the scientific approach to understanding).

But Darwin's ideas concerning evolution are not discussed merely within the community of biologists and philosophers, but criticized, ridiculed and vilified by persons with little or no training in biology: lawyers, engineers, physicists, theologians, together with all kinds of people from the public at large. Of course, no ideas should be arbitrarily off-limits for any segment of society, but my question here is this: Why should a set of ideas concerning the science of biology so excite persons not professionally involved with such matters? And why should so many people, often clearly ignorant of much of the material basic to an understanding of evolutionary biology (which, after all, takes many years to acquire), feel justified in offering their opinions, often in print? No-one gets much excited or upset about the structure and origin of stars, about the nature of gravity and what it implies about the universe, or even about sub-atomic structure - so why evolution? It seems that Darwinism is such an animating topic because it offers the final insult to our pride in our long-supposed special status in the world and in the universe at large.

To some good degree, the story of the developing rational (scientific) world-view has been one of our learning to see things less and less distorted by subjective, often emotionally-based, impressions. We all seem to begin, both as individuals and as cultures, with a firmly-held subjective conviction in our special importance, both locally and in the cosmos at large. The first major blow to that conviction came with the acceptance of the heliocentric solar system - the world, our home, was, after all, not the center of all existence, but instead revolved around a distant sun. This conclusion, based on honest reporting and scrutiny of objectively observed phenomena, together with the development and honest evaluation of rational intellectual structures designed to account for those observations, was fought violently for a long time, both by some "men of science" and by the establishment, especially The Great Church. We may note that only recently has that church acknowledged its error in condemning Galileo for his adherence to what rational methods had led him to conclude. This idea was fought so vigorously because it seemed to challenge directly the cherished notion of our specialness in all creation.

Over the centuries since then we have learned to live with the idea that our home is not anywhere near the center of either the solar system, or the universe at large. Indeed, we now see that the very notion of a center of anything is itself illusory. However, most folk retained the conviction that, even if we didn't live in a special place, then at least we ourselves were special, marked off unassailably from all other living things. Indeed, many supposed, and continue so to do, that even certain groups among us are special. Then along came Darwin and challenged this notion of apartness; the effectiveness of the challenge is perhaps measured by the vigor of the responses to it.

What Darwin seemed to be saying was that all life is part of the same game; that man is just one manifestation of life, among many - one of the more recent acts on the cosmic stage. It is this element of his ideas which comes so hard, and which many cannot accept. And because any one of us can feel personally involved in this proposition of the community of life on earth, any of us feels ready to comment.

But really, this is all mistaken. This "apartness" of man is a theological and/or ethical concept, nothing whatever to do with the scientific conclusion of man's genealogical links with other life forms. Darwin, and, I emphasize, science as a whole, has it that, as biological entities, we humans are part of the same nexus of life as are whales, fungus, bacteria and pine trees - but science says nothing directly about theological matters like the special relationship which one species, us, may have with a deity, however that deity may be conceived by the world's many, diverse, cultures. Humans constitute a distinctive species, to be sure, but then, so do aardvarks and cockroaches.

It has been pointed out time and again that there is no necessary conflict between science and much of religion, so long as they both recognize their respective domains: many evolutionists are sincerely religious and, indeed, most of the major religious groups recognize no serious problems in accepting evolutionary biology as an explanation of biological matters. Even the Pope now accepts Evolution. There is no more need for most religious persons to feel troubled by the idea of evolution than they do by gravitation theory, gene theory or by relativity theory - they can still have their valid relationship with whatever they conceive their God(s) to be. Science offers no comment on the existence or nature of gods, since they are not part of science's domain (except to say that none of the empirical evidence requires the concept of a god, as usually propounded, and that it would seem to pretty much rule out miraculous interventions). Our close genetic and historical connection with all other forms of life in no way mitigates the possibility of a relationship (which, of course, all life may share) with something some call God. Scientists are not necessarily condemned, through their adherence to a rational approach to the explanation of the material world, to being atheist any more than religious people are necessarily non-rational. However, it would seem to be impossible to sustain a coherent life in science along with most religious fundamentalism and/or literalism. Science does not sit well with dogma.

In summary, I wish to suggest that poor Darwin is so often singled out for adverse criticism by all and sundry because his ideas seem to be the final blow to our cherished notion of mankind's special status. Evolutionary biology does insist that man evolved, just as did other life, from earlier ancestors, but it is theologically silent.

So Darwin is quite undeserving of this continuing barrage of criticism. It has its origins in: 1. ignorance of what Darwin said, 2. misunderstanding of what science is, and says, 3. lack of appreciation for the uniformity of all sciences in their approach to understanding (throw out evolution and you may with equal (un)reason throw out continental drift, quarks, genes or the big bang), and 4. a failure to recognize the relationship between science (which is simply institutionalized honesty and rationality) and other systems of thought for rendering the world and existence intelligible and bearable.

Herein lies the main message to those who sympathize with the campaign to include "creationism" in school science classes: scientific and religious explanations of the world are of a radically different kind, and operate in different intellectual domains; none of us is well-served by confusing this issue. It is a massive irony that, although we live in a world dominated by technology, a great many children leave school, even high school, with a minimal understanding of science. This inadequate conveyance of the nature of scientific ideas and of the means for rational decision-making has, no doubt, contributed significantly to the widespread incapacity of the public to protect itself from exploitation by pseudo-sciences like bio-rhythms, astrology & medical quackeries, or by unscrupulous advertisers or pushers of simple-minded technological or economic approaches to solving our social and global problems, including, of course, politicians. Clearly we need to do a better job as educators in instructing students in the skills of clear thinking and in discriminating the sound from the bogus. Further confusion must be avoided.

None of this means that students' inquiries about non-science views on origins etc. should be ignored by science teachers, but it is of paramount importance that teachers make it clear to all of the class what is involved: creationist ideas of any kind (and, let's be clear, this doesn't only include fundamentalist literalist, Christian creationism) do not constitute a part of the scientific, rational, world-view. They are not valid alternatives to evolutionary explanations within science. They are alternative explanations, yes, but within a radically different modality of approach to explaining things.

Last Updated: 05/18/2010