Darwin shouldn't be hijacked by New Atheists - he is an ethical inspiration
By MADELEINE BUNTING, GUARDIAN
Added: Mon, 29 Dec 2008 00:00:00 UTC
Next year's anniversaries of this great British scientist must explore beyond the usual squabbling over faith
Next year there will be no escaping one man and his legacy - 2009 will be marked by television series, books, debates, conferences and exhibitions devoted to Charles Darwin and his two anniversaries: the 200th of his birth; and the 150th of his book, On the Origin of the Species. One might imagine that there was little more to be written on the man, but the coming year will bring the publication of plenty more books, starting this week with a helpful Rough Guide to Evolution - Darwin's big idea that changed the world - and in 12 months' time 50 new titles should have arrived in bookshops. It is shaping up to be the biggest anniversary ever of an individual's life.
There are some obvious good reasons for making such a fuss. He is one of the three great intellectuals of the 19th century who shaped modernity, along with Marx and Freud. Unlike the others, whose reputations have been somewhat battered by a century or so of ferocious debate, Darwin's standing is now higher than ever. Much of what he argued has been proved right. Scientists, particularly biologists, are full of awe for a man whose thinking was so meticulous, so full of original insight and astonishingly ahead of its time. He is, Newton apart, the greatest British scientist ever, so it makes good sense for the British Council, among others, to use this as an opportunity to flag up the prestigious history of British science.
But there is an even more serious purpose than flying the flag or celebrating intellectual history. What drives this anniversary is a missionary zeal to persuade and convince the public of the truth of Darwin's great discoveries, because, astoundingly - despite the mountain of scientific evidence - there is still considerable scepticism and even hostility to this great Victorian. A poll for the BBC in 2006 found that less than half the British population accepted the theory of evolution as the best description for the development of life. Comparable figures in the US are attributed to its intense religiosity, but given the very low levels of regular worshippers in the UK, religious faith can't account entirely for the resistance to Darwinian evolution. So what is it?
Freud's explanation in 1920 was that "humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realised that our earth was not the centre of the universe ... The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created and relegated him to a descent from the animal world". One wonders how long it took for Copernicus to be treated with respect; one scholar of Darwin suggested it could be another couple of centuries before we can forgive the man.
There have been plenty of other reasons to be suspicious. Darwin's ideas have been taken up and used by a litany of crooks and villains for their own purposes. "Survival of the fittest", the phrase most closely associated with Darwin and more properly credited to his contemporary Herbert Spencer, hatched a host of pernicious theories in the 20th century from eugenics to social Darwinianism.
So the first imperative for the anniversary is to strip away the accumulation of mythology that has made Darwin such a villain. After speaking to five scholars of Darwin, who between them have accumulated a small pile of books on the subject, the one common refrain was that far too much has been dumped on the man. He was a brilliant scientist, but he was not a philosopher, nor a political or social theorist. He never claimed that his theories could explain everything, and certainly not everything about what it was to be human; on the contrary he himself maintained a very Victorian sense of moral accountability that he never sought to justify in terms of natural selection.
In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism.
Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin. While he was poring over his pigeons, biblical scholars were hard at work radically revising the historical understanding of the Bible and arguably doing as much as he ever did to undermine the possibility of a literal reading of scripture. The work of the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell debunked the idea of seven days of creation in Genesis long before Darwin.
The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin's theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It's a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.
"A defence of evolution doesn't have to get entangled in atheism," says Mark Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at Birmingham and author of The Rough Guide to Evolution. Bob Bloomfield, of the Natural History Museum, says: "We want to move the agenda on to the relevance of his ideas today and put aside this squabbling over faith and dogma."
An attempt to do just that will be in one of the most important of the new crop of Darwin books: Darwin's Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, published next month. They argue that Darwin was driven by a moral impulse - abolitionism. He set out to prove that all human beings, regardless of skin colour, were essentially the same, all descended within a few thousand generations from shared parentage. It was Darwin's refutation of the scientific racism of his day used to justify slavery.
Bloomfield argues that Darwin's theories of evolution are rich in the ethical inspiration essential for the huge environmental crisis we now face. Common descent provides scientific underpinning for the kinship of all human beings - this is no longer simply an ideal, but a scientific fact. And human beings are connected to all other living things on earth; our relationship with the natural world is not one of dominion but intimate interdependence. Darwin may have provoked outrage by displacing human self-aggrandisement, but he also hugely widened the scope of understanding into how the earth has come to be, and thus the responsibility for how it evolves from here. In comparison with such lofty aims, a row over whether evolution is proof of atheism would be a monumental and nonsensical waste of everyone's time.
Richard Dawkins' comment on the Madeleine Bunting column
A telling litmus test of an ignoramus on the subject of Darwin is their rendering of the title of his great book. The diagnlostic solecism -- remarkably common -- is to stick a 'the' before 'species'. Sure enough, Madeleine Bunting falls right into it, exactly as you would expect. The correct title, of course, is On the Origin of Species.
It is true that Darwin declined to call himself an atheist. But his motive, clearly expressed to the atheist intellectual Edward Aveling (incidentally the common-law husband of Karl Marx's daughter) was that Darwin didn't want to upset people. Atheism, in Darwin's view, was all well and good for the intelligentsia, but ordinary people were not yet "ripe" for atheism. So he called himself an agnostic, largely for diplomatic reasons..
In any case, what Darwin chose to call himself, as a pillar of his local parish in the nineteenth century, is of less interest than the cogency of the arguments themselves. Before Darwin came along, it was pretty difficult to be an atheist, at least to be an atheist free of nagging doubts. Darwin triumphantly made it EASY to be an intellectually fulfilled and satisfied atheist. That doesn't mean that understanding Darwin drives you inevitably to atheism. But it certainly constitutes a giant step in that direction.
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