Darwin used to be a deeply religious man. He studied theology at Cambridge and as a young man he looked forward to the lifelong service of a cleric. His professional outlook changed dramatically after he embarked in 1831 on a five-year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle. His observations led him to develop the theory of natural selection, the process by which organisms that are best adapted to their environment produce more offspring while those less suited eventually die out. In a stroke of unparalleled genius he obtained the scintillating insight that all living beings are connected through a long lineage that goes back billions of years, to a common ancestor. That indeed all life is one.
For the next twenty years he meticulously crafted and weighted the implications to his theory. One the one hand, evolution tied well with his egalitarian and anti-slavery ideas. It demonstrated in a scientific and rational way that all humans were born equal regardless of race or color of skin. But Darwin was deeply concerned because his insight clashed directly with the biblical description of life. So he decided to keep his work virtually secret, confiding only to a few of his closest friends. Fortuitously, Darwin was a man of his time. In the heart of the Victorian Era, there was much evidence pointing to the uneasy fact that Earth was very much older than the 6,000 years religious scholars estimated to be. Lyell’s geological notions and Malthus’s theory on demographics spurred Darwin on, while torrents of collected fossils poured into England from all corners of the British Empire illustrating that Earth had been through many previous epochs when other, now extinct, creatures lived. Why didn’t the Bible say anything about that? The untimely death of Darwin’s daughter Anne in 1851 at the age of ten threw a devastating blow to Darwin’s religious beliefs. Nine years later he finally decided to publish his seminal book on “The Origin of Species”.
Just as Darwin predicted, the reaction to his ideas from religious believers was a combination of denial and ridicule…which happened mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. By the beginning of the 20th century many States in the US had passed laws that banned the teaching of evolution at schools, a situation which lasted well into the 60s. It was the Soviets putting Sputnik in orbit that prompted President Eisenhower to reexamine the quality of scientific education for young Americans, and therefore insist that science, and indeed evolution, be taught at secondary level. America had to regain its scientific edge in order to win the Cold War, and the Congress agreed that the constitutional separation between Church and State ought to be enforced in the schools. Federal Courts begun to try cases where teachers were persecuted from State School Boards, for teaching evolution. In a series of famous rulings the courts defended science and declared “Creationism” – the notion that Earth and Humans were created by God just like it says in the Book of Genesis – as well its pseudoscientific offshoot “Intelligent Design” to be religion, not science.
And yet, despite all that, recent polls indicate that only 14% of Americans believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. On the contrary, nearly 45% completely trust the Biblical version of Adam and Eve. It seems that no matter what Federal Courts decide and what scientists publically decry, minds are next to impossible to change.
But why is this so important? Because confusion between evidence-based science and faith-based religion can only lead to the detriment of the former. Take, for example, alchemy and chemistry. Both deal with matter and reactions between chemical substances. Their respective laboratories may look strikingly similar to the untrained eye. And yet they differ in something very fundamental. Alchemy is obsessed with the transmutation of metals to gold. After many centuries of trial and error it produced nothing. Chemistry on the other hand, once it separated from faith-based alchemy and adopted the scientific method, managed to produce the wonders of our technological civilization, including medicinal drugs that have saved – and save – millions of lives. Abandoning scientific enquiry, rejecting evidence whenever it clashes with scripture, sanctioning academic liberties on the basis of dogma, and obsessing with “proving” religious notions, can only result in our world returning to the Middle Ages. That’s what is at stake here.
And is not an American problem only. Greece has the lowest public acceptance of evolution in the EU. Thirty per cent of the population accepts the Genesis narrative, and another twenty percent strongly doubt that humans evolved from apes. A few years ago the then General Secretary of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs (sic), when asked about the Ministry’s view on evolution, responded that “evolution is just a theory”, meaning that it has not been proven yet! Evolutionary theory, although included in the school’s textbooks, is almost never taught because it is part of the material that Greek students are examined upon. Elsewhere in Europe the situation is only slightly better, and even in the United Kingdom evolution is seriously challenged by Christian fundamentalists and Islamic hardliners.
So is there a way to reconcile evolution with the Bible? Pope John Paul II in 1996 all but accepted the fossil record and the scientifically calculated age of Planet Earth as true. And yet the Catholic Church remains ambivalent as to the mechanisms that guide the evolution of species. Where most scientists see the mindless hand of chance genetic mutations, Catholics see the guiding spirit of divine providence. The dialogue seems like an impossible discussion between deaf people separated by a thick wall. Recently, and rather amusingly perhaps, it took the form of advertising banners on double-decker buses across London, with Christian fundamentalists defending the doctrine of God-the-Creator and atheists refuting biblical belief as nonsense.
At the heart of the debate lies the irreconcilable contrast between two fundamental narratives of Western civilization: one written by science, the other purportedly by the Word of God. It is the Book of Genesis versus the Origin of Species, the former remaining unchanged through the ages, the later continuously updated as new data come to light – from genetics and fossils – that support the workings of natural selection. You have to believe Genesis to be true, but you do not have to do the same with evolution. You can doubt evolution all you like, for science is the art of skepticism and doubt. The caveat it that science also requires you to be brave enough to accept the evidence, even when it upsets your most deeply-held beliefs.
There are of course people of faith who regard the Bible as an allegory and therefore claim to have no qualms accepting a scientific narrative too. But as Richard Dawkins has poignantly commented, they do not seem to truly appreciate the fact that was so profound to Darwin: that if one accepts evolution one must automatically exclude God from life’s equation. Because evolution explains everything. There are no missing factors or mysteries left. The fundamentalists in Texas understand this well and hence their relentless struggle to eradicate Darwinism from their schools’ curricula. So if you happen to be one who does not believe that Earth is 10,000 years old, and yet you still believe in a biblical God, think again. Unfortunately, you cannot have the cake of science and eat it too.
Published in the Athens News on 27th March 2009