Thursday, February 12, 2009

Respecting Darwin

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today in Shrewsbury, England. At the age of 22, the budding naturalist sailed on the HMS Beagle to collect, observe and study the flora and the fauna of South America and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. (The home page of Google today shows an artist's rendition of the Islands). Returning home after 5 years, he pored over his notes and specimens with a scientist’s obsession. Twenty years of research, experiment and synthesis later, accompanied by prolonged periods of doubt and moral dilemma, Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation for Favoured Races in the struggle for Life” in 1859. (Consider this curious coincidence: Newton, the preeminent scientist of the eighteenth century, waited for twenty years before publishing Principia. Darwin, the preeminent scientist of the nineteenth century, waited for twenty years before publishing his seminal findings. Another coincidence: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on 12 February, 1809).

"Origin of Species" revolutionized our understanding of life on earth, its astonishing diversity and our place in it. Evolution by natural selection is the unifying theory of the life sciences. Advances in genetics and DNA, of which Darwin had no knowledge, continues to confirm his theory by revealing the physical basis of evolution. That all living beings, including humans, have evolved from a common ancestor, with natural selection as the driving force, is an idea whose scientific truth becomes more evident with each new discovery in the field.

But an artificial war has raged since Darwin proposed his theory 150 years ago. It’s the war between science and religion, reason and faith. Many scientists and secularists use Darwin’s theory to assert that there is no God since, as they see it, “everything” is a product of chance. Many people of faith reject Darwin because his theory runs counter to a literal reading of sacred texts and because, as they see it, it deprives life of meaning and purpose. Reductionists insist that life and its mysteries can be explained by the laws of physics, while literalists insist that the earth is a few thousand years old and everything was created as is.

Both sides are wrong, of course. On the question of heaven and hell and eternal life after death, Darwin had this to say: "The safest conclusion seems to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect … Every man must judge for himself, between conflicting vague probabilities." Darwin was humble enough to recognize that his theory of evolution was silent on the question of meaning and purpose and the existence of a Divine Being. He did not reach this conclusion to pacify his devout wife Emma, the clergy or his religious-minded friends. He reached his conclusion as a scientist would, that those questions were simply beyond the scope of his theory.

There are renowned scientists (Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, to name one) who are ardent believers. They regard the confluence of science and religion as being inevitable. Likewise, there are many theologians who find undeniable truth in the theory of evolution. They agree with Galileo who said: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use.”

Most of us are neither scientists nor theologians. Those who believe that the theory of evolution is proof that the universe is devoid of divine content, well, that’s their belief, their "leap of unfaith." For those (I think a majority) who believe, on the other hand, that the theory of evolution is not the whole story, that there is a transcendent power that guides our destiny, they should be perfectly comfortable in saying so. We owe at least that much to Darwin.

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