Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

It’s Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday today. 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his master work, On the Origin of Species.Charles Darwin Recognizing that most of us have not read it, The New York Times this week provided selections from the book along with commentary.

Over those 150 years our knowledge of evolution and natural selection has grown exponentially. As the February Smithsonian Magazine reports, we now know — through geology — that the Earth is old enough to have permitted the evolution of life. And due to the work on DNA and the genome research, we know that all life on Earth is closely related.

In fact, scientific knowledge has exploded during those 150 years. We know so much more than Darwin did, though his work certainly prepared the ground for modern biology. As the Smithsonian article observes, “[T]he future has come down solidly on Darwin’s side — despite everything he didn’t know.”

Why, then, are people still refusing to accept evolution, even going so far as to say they don’t “believe” in it, as if it were some kind of magic instead of science based on rigorous research?

I’m particularly conscious of this ongoing struggle, since the Texas State Board of Education just debated restrictions on teaching evolution. In the end, they did delete a requirement that “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution be taught, though the anti-evolutionists managed to weaken the end result with amendments that could cause students to doubt evolution. What happens in Texas matters elsewhere, because textbooks are approved for statewide use and Texas is the second-largest state (in population as well as land area). Textbook publishers cater to the Texas market, and other states are stuck with the result.

In The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong argues that fundamentalist religious groups are as tied to a modern world without magic as the rest of us, and therefore cannot read the Bible as myth and metaphor, but rather demand that it be read as literally true because every word came from God. That’s ludicrous to anyone who has looked into the fights over what works to include, not to mention the translation and copying errors, but the fundamentalists assume everyone who had anything to do with the Bible as they read it right now was “divinely inspired.”

Of course, there are also those who simply don’t want to recognize that human beings developed from animals. And those who, regardless of whether they are Biblical literalists, want to believe in an anthropomorphic tool-using God who created us as we might make a doll.

I’ve never quite understood those fears, because I never understood why people had to believe in such a hands-on God. Why not one who could create a system in which life evolves?

But an observation made by Nicholas Wade in his article on Darwin in this week’s Science Times gave me a new way of looking at the issue:

Darwin also had the intellectual toughness to stick with the deeply discomfiting consequences of his theory, that natural selection has no goal or purpose.

According to Wade, even Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Wallace — who independently developed a theory of evolution — was frightened by this and eventually turned to spiritualism.

If natural selection has no goal or purpose, then perhaps life has no goal or purpose either.

I can see how that idea might scare people, but far from frightening me, it inspires me in much the same way that I felt inspired when I ran across Nietzsche’s ideas on the death of God, which also deals with the idea that life has no purpose.

If life has no set purpose, then we — as thinking beings — are free to devise our own. I find this idea incredibly liberating.

While some — particularly nihilists as well as fundamentalist Christians — fear that will lead us down a path to evil, since nothing would be forbidden, I believe (and this is, of course, a matter of belief, not science) that coming up with our own purpose will allow human beings to grow into a more interesting species.

We have, after all, reached the point in our intelligence where we have the capacity to muck around with our own evolution, assuming we manage to survive the climate change and other challenges we face at present. Of course, if we change how humans evolve, we may end up with people who believe human beings are God, which is likely to cause other kinds of catastrophe and conflict.

One thing’s for sure: It’s not going to be boring. And it’s also going to provide huge scope for science fiction writers.

Maybe that’s why I feel so inspired.


Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “Kitty Sue’s Cabinet.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.


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