Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rescuing Darwin from His Detractors (and Supporters)

TITLE: Rescuing Darwin

AUTHOR: Paul Fayter

SOURCE: The United Church Observer

SUMMARY: Ever since the Origin of Species was first published 150 years ago, scientists and creationists have tried to spin the religious views of Charles Darwin their way.

COMMENTARY: This article by Paul Fayter (appearing on a website sponsored by The United Church Observer, a Christian organization) directly contradicts many of the assertions made by some evolutionary biologists and most ID supporters, including most of the egregious distortions in Benjamin Wiker's recent book,
The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin.

Unlike Wiker and most ID supporters, Paul Fayter has spent a significant fraction of his professional life studying Charles Darwin and his work. Here's what he found:

- Darwin was not an atheist when he wrote the Origin of Species and therefore could not possibly have written it as an "apology" for his atheism;

- the most important factors in his eventual agnosticism were 1) the death of his daughter, Annie, and 2) his view that a benevolent deity would not have created a world with such horrors as parasites (and the indiscriminate death of innocents);

- that despite his agnosticism, Darwin remained a "practicing" member of both the Church of England and his local parish church;

- that despite his embrace of the science of evolutionary theory, he did not descend into a life of libertinism and immorality, nor did he distort his theory to support any political position (including eugenics or "social darwinism");

- he remained a dedicated scientist, a loving husband, a doting father, a devoted member of his parish, and an unwavering opponent of slavery and its concomitant evils; and

- he also remained what would now be considered to be a "theistic evolutionist" until his death.

Here is Faytor's conclusion:

Darwin was able to reconcile the power and glory of a good and loving God with nature's cold indifference and manifest cruelty - the infamous and pitiless "survival of the fittest" - by viewing struggle, pain, suffering and death not as the direct will of God but as the result of the impersonal operation of universal laws. The process of evolution by means of natural selection was deadly and wasteful, and yet, as Darwin concluded in The Origin, it had a higher, nobler purpose. Higher species would evolve. The Creator - the God of scientific theism - lawfully drew good out of evil and progress out of pain.

Near the end of his life, Darwin thought it impossible to conceive that "this immense and wonderful universe" was "the result of blind chance or necessity." No, it still seemed that the world had been willed into being. "I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man," he wrote in his autobiography, "and I deserve to be called a Theist." At the same time, Darwin believed that "the mystery of the beginning of all things" was simply unsolvable; and so he also declared, "I for one must be content to remain an agnostic."

All of this directly contradicts Wiker's biography of Darwin and the opinions of most ID supporters. Demonizing Darwin, especially when there are very good (and unbiased) biographies of Darwin (not to mention his own, very candid autobiography) does nothing to harm Darwin's scientific reputation. By contrast, the fundamental misunderstanding among many ID supporters of how real science is done does quite a bit to harm ID's scientific reputation.

Neither evolutionary biology nor ID will be advanced or forestalled as scientific enterprises by pro- or anti-hagiographies of Charles Darwin (or any other individual scientist or ID supporter). This will happen only when sufficient field and laboratory work has been done and the results published in reputable scientific journals to decide between them. So far ID supporters have chosen to pursue a political program and the vilification of world-renowned scientists, rather than do the requisite science. Until they decide to abandon ad hominem arguments and actually focus on the science, they will remain (like "scientific creationism") a cautionary footnote to the history of the triumph of evolutionary biology.

In closing, I find it quite significant that only ID supporters refer to Darwin as a "little God". Like all evolutionary biologists, I consider him to have been a dedicated and talented observer of nature and a genuinely good person, but (like all of us) a plain and simple (and, of course, fallible) human.


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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