My local public radio station KRCC recently switched its Sunday programming, moving "my" show Speaking of Faith to an annoyingly inconvenient time; so I've missed the program most of the time lately. By chance I caught it Sunday, and it (along with a plethora of recent book titles and reviews that I've been reading) reminded me to celebrate the wonder of Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday. The program, Evolution and Wonder: Understanding Charles Darwin, can be heard and explored further here.
Many times now I've read a statement to the effect that most biologists have never read On the Origin of Species, and that, if/when they do, they are startled by its literary power. I know biologists have plenty of other things to do, but I would hope more of them would pick it up, as I did as a high school student.
Here I have to give a shout out to Mrs. Hinton, my rigidly conservative, Church of Christ attending high school biology teacher. She was stern and no-nonsense, and that included the precious time she had with us in science class. She didn't waste time with any apologies for modern evolutionary theory, or circumventing the obvious difficulty it raised with the Genesis account, or with prevarications such as "this is just a theory that some people believe" or any of the other vapid cliches that creationists periodically try to sneak into science standards. Instead, she focused on science, because she knew that's what science class was for, and she knew that if our parents wanted us to understand religion, we would get that in the appropriate places as well. By the way, this was in small public school in rural Oklahoma where we still said school prayer and were required to attend "devotionals," sometimes led by the same Mrs. Hinton. She knew her religion, and she also knew how to teach us that evolution was the entire basis of all modern biology, and was a "theory" akin to the "theory" of gravity.
Then again I encountered Origin as an aspiring biology-major-to-be. That was before Clio kidnapped me for history, roundabout my junior year of college; or perhaps more realistically, when I discovered that laying about the library reading history books was to be my destiny, and besides that left more time for afternoon basketball while my former fellow students in 2nd year Organic Chem were slaving away in the lab.
The famous end passage of Origin speaks most eloquently to Darwin's wonder, and to me always has read as a biological psalm:
(F)rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. 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.
Yesterday's New York Times Science section featured an rich set of pieces on Darwin, both what he got right and anticipated (which was a lot) as well as what he could not possibly have gotten right (the role of genetics, molecular evolution, and so on). The end result, for me, was that Darwin still towers over modern understandings of life, even while "Darwinism" is a most unfortunate phrase, since an "ism" rigidifies into an ideology rather than the supple set of ideas so beautifully expressed in Origin of the Species.
Mendel, Watson and Crick, Gould, and many others have shaped contemporary scientific understandings and advanced, naturally, far beyond Darwin's conceptions. The evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne's recent summary text, Why Evolution is True, presents in clear layperson's terms a good deal of this history of the evolution of the scientific idea of evolution since Darwin, pointing out the deep truths in Darwin as well as some points that he either did not or could not understand or get right. Coyne also discusses scientific points about evolutionary theory still under investigation, and questions still to be answered. Another beauty of Darwin's dangerous idea is precisely its power to fuel generations of scientific investigation.
(Coyne also has recently laid aim, in The New Republic, to those, including Karl Giberson's fine work Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, and for that matter Stephen Jay Gould's idea of "non-overlapping magisteria," who find religion and evolution compatible in the sense that science and religion speak ultimately to different questions, and certainly do not have to be mutually exclusive. I ultimately am not persuaded by Coyne's critique, but he does write a tough-minded essay, one well worth reading.)
Nonetheless, at a deep level Darwin's decades of careful observations and meticulous recordings led him to get something fundamental about the development of life forms right, intuitively and almost religiously. Moreover, as his biographer James Moore discusses on the Speaking of Faith program, Darwin mulled deeply over the realization that his notions upset static notions of the fixity of life on earth.
The Origin of Species was not the first classic scientific text to break from such [creationist] beliefs. It was, rather, the last to fully engage them. Darwin waited two decades before he published. His observations and conclusions were painstakingly belabored. He anticipated religious questions and objections at every turn and responded carefully to them. Darwin's theory of natural selection was borne, James Moore asserts, of "theological humility."
This insight alone would place our culture's contentious battles over Darwin on a different footing. My own suppositions have been radically changed by this program. . . . Darwin saw creation as an unfolding reality. Once set in motion, as he saw it, the laws of nature sustained a self-organizing progression driven by the needs and struggles of every aspect of creation itself. The word "reverence" would not be too strong for the attitude with which Darwin approached all he saw in the natural world. There is a great intellectual and spiritual passion and a touching sense of wonder evident in the writings included in this program and on our Web site, from his private notebooks and correspondence as well as the Beagle Diary and The Origin of Species.
Darwin's deep engagement with the moral struggles of his era have been the subject of a number of recent books, as well. One especially notable one: Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution.
I've often asked my students why "evolution" or "Darwinism" causes such controversy in America -- from the Scopes Trial to later "creationism" to the recently updated version of creationist nonsense, "Intelligent Design"-- while no such bitter culture wars seem to preoccupy Christian believers elsewhere. That has changed a bit in recent years, as some of the "ID" propaganda has found its way across the pond. Nonetheless, America has a very peculiar history with the idea of evolution, and it always has puzzled me that other well-known and well-established recent scientific ideas haven't pushed the culture wars the same way. For example, the random nature of the distribution of proteins in DNA structure hardly speaks to a biblical view, yet I'm sure creationist evangelicals have little trouble watching CSI, and some of them who would recoil in horror at Origin of Species can read Watson and Crick, or perhaps even Brian Greene's explanation of "string theory," and not think about how their entire cosmology has just been disrupted. Coyne has a nice passage on this in the review quoted above:
The resistance to evolution in America has little to do with populism as such. Our ornery countrymen do not rise up against the idea of black holes or the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem.
Ronald Numbers (Darwinism Comes to America) and Edward Larson (Summer for the Gods) probably come as close as anyone to explaining how Darwinism has fed into a long-running culture war in American religious history. Still, sometimes it just makes me wanna holler: On the Origin of Species is beautiful. Just read it, and feel the wonder!