Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Darwin!

You may not realize it, but this is a very historically important year for the science of biology. Today (Feb 12th) is Charles Darwin’s birthday. He was born in 1809, and in November of 1859 he published the famous (and infamous) Origin of Species, making this year a tidy double anniversary. With all the rising excitement surrounding these celebrations we can expect the usual claims and counterclaims about the great scientist. On one hand, expect to see the young earth creationist faction denouncing Darwin as demonically inspired (Henry Morris has said “Satan himself is the originator of the concept of evolution”). On the other hand, there is no doubt that Darwin’s contemporary ‘high priests’ will want to use Darwin as the figurehead for the advancement of materialistic atheism — touting him as the saviour who “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

The reality is that Darwin would not have supported either program. He was not trying to overthrow Christianity in favour of atheism because in fact, Darwin was never an atheist. In a letter he wrote three years before his death, Darwin stated “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” Equally in his Autobiography Darwin states that in regards to his religious belief he “deserve[s] to be called a Theist” due to his recognition of intelligence in the architecture of the universe. On the other hand, the myth of his deathbed recantation is also false, as has been confirmed by Darwin’s son Francis.
Darwin was religiously a moderate man. Yet as recently as this summer, big time multimedia has been attacking him once again, associating his views with atheism, racism and support of eugenics. In a kind of “strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter” logic, Ben Stein’s movie Expelled quotes the following from Darwin:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

What Expelled misses (and I can only think that it was intentionally done) is the very next paragraph where Darwin explicitly states that he does not support the idea of eugenics. In reference to humans he says:
Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

Darwin was a good man, and a great scientist. Not only did he not support eugenics, he opposed racism, was staunchly against slavery, and would have been appalled at “social Darwinism”. He was a prototypical Victorian gentleman, whose letters and books were filled with equal measures of humour and wit. But why take my word for it? Why not take a moment to get to know the man yourself? As the world celebrates his 200th birthday, crack open Origin of Species or read some of his letters, and look past the ugly rhetoric to discover the real Charles Darwin.

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