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The Greatest Emancipator: Reflections on Charles Darwin’s Birthday

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Today marks the birth of one of history’s great emancipators, who freed people and minds from the shackles imposed on them by centuries of dogma and ignorance.

Well, this statement could apply to either of the two great men born on 12th February 1809, two hundred and ten years ago: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. But I think, to echo writers such as Christopher Hitchens, that Darwin was the more important of the two.

Original image credit: Pixabay

Background

This may seem a bold, even brazen, claim, but I think it is justifiable. While Lincoln emancipated black Americans from the horrors of slavery, Darwin’s ideas emancipated all humanity from supernatural ignorance by proposing with elegance a theory explaining all life, including human life: the theory of evolution by natural selection. (Let us not, however, fail to mention the great Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of natural selection.)

This year also marks the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s great idea in On the Origin of Species (published 24th November 1859). Since then, Darwin’s theory has been vindicated and expanded: it is no longer, and has not been for a long time, possible to deny that evolution by natural selection is a fact (though, naturally, there is some debate among scientists over the exact role of natural selection in the process of evolution, which, incidentally, was a general idea predating Darwin: it was his genius to provide evidence for it and explain its main mechanism).

Why is Darwin’s theory so important, so powerful? It is beyond me as a lowly humanities student to expound on the intricacies of this most important of scientific ideas, but the basics are these: organisms change over time, and those which are best at surviving, and therefore reproducing, pass on the characteristics which enabled them to survive and reproduce.

Survival of the Fittest

This simple idea at a stroke explains the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Before Darwin, the sheer baffling complexity of life suggested to most that there must have been a designer god- as William Paley put it, if we came across a watch we would assume it has been designed, so intricate is it, and so it goes with nature.

Darwin showed that this was false, that there need be no designer: instead, adaptive complexity can come about through the slow, gradual, step by step cumulative process of evolution by natural selection. He used artificial selection as a case in point- over the centuries humans have created a diversity of dog breeds by choosing which dogs bred and which didn’t, and thus which characteristics were passed on. This is how you get Rottweilers and chihuahuas from wolves.

The insight which Darwin added was that there need be no agent, human or otherwise, to do the selecting. In nature, selection is automatic: those organisms which have the best characteristics for escaping predators, catching prey, rearing young etc. are the ones who pass on those characteristics and thus organisms, through the incomprehensible aeons of geological time, become adapted to their environments and lifestyles.

Impact

The sheer exhilaration of Darwinian theory is that the magnificence, beauty, ugliness and improbable complexity of life is explained very simply, with no recourse to the supernatural. Since 1859 Darwin’s theory has been expanded, most notably with the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis of the early 20th century which combined Darwinian natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s discovery of the units of heredity now known as genes (the mechanisms of heredity were unknown to Darwin, as was, ironically, the actual process of speciation, which we now understand in great detail). Since then, new ideas have been expounded, and Darwinian theory is still as strong as ever, though it has been much modified since 1859. It still retains the great man’s name, however, because on so much he was so correct.

Darwinism was not confined to biology, however. Misguided intellectuals championed what were labelled Social Darwinist ideas, absurdly thinking that Darwinian natural selection had moral applications for the ‘efficiency’ and ‘fitness’ of human society. Of course it didn’t: as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, evolution by natural selection is, if anything, a blueprint for how not to run human society.

David Hume would have recognised the naturalistic fallacy at play in the ideas of Social Darwinists. And, besides, Social Darwinists, including Hitler, did not even have their Darwinism right- Darwin’s idea was that individuals compete in nature, most emphatically not groups or races as Hitler would have it! Darwin was certainly a man of his time when it came to matters of race, but he would certainly have been horrified by Social Darwinism.

Aside from all that, Darwin’s dangerous idea, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called it, has much wider consequences. Dennett has likened it to a ‘universal acid’, transforming radically all of our traditional concepts, with applications in cosmology, psychology, culture, ethics, religion and much else besides. This scares some people, especially humanities scholars who absurdly think it reductive or scientistic.

We are bipedal apes, evolved beings- of course our evolution has affected our brains profoundly, and that is all we need to say to justify looking at human affairs through a Darwinian lens (though, of course, evolutionary psychology and such fields cannot explain everything- there is still room for us literature students, fear not!). I believe that a greater understanding of science and, in particular, Darwinian theory, would be of great benefit to humanities scholars. It offers so many new ideas! Put down your Foucault and pick up the Origin.

Darwin in the modern day

Daniel Dennett has even gone so far as to call Darwin’s theory the best idea anyone has ever had, even against the likes of Einstein’s and Newton’s contributions. This is, once more, brazen, but a strong case can be made for it. No top-down design, just a natural algorithmic process building complexity from the bottom-up. Beautiful, simple, and still revolutionary.

Richard Dawkins has argued that Darwinism explains not just life on Earth, but that some form of it is the only thing in principle capable of explaining complex, adaptive life anywhere it may be found in the universe. Quite a thought! As Dawkins puts it, ‘The Darwinian Law may be as universal as the great laws of physics’.

Unfortunately, there is still much ignorance concerning evolution. 38% of Americans, according to Gallup in 2017, believe humans were created by god in the last 10,000 years. This percentage is for the first time lower than previous surveys’ averages around the 40% mark, but 38% is still a lot of people, and it should be worrying to anyone who cares about truth that well-funded religious fundamentalists are unceasing in their war on science.

Worrying, too, is the tendency in some circles to extol postmodernism and relativism, decrying the very notion of truth as oppressive and patriarchal (or whatever the buzzword of the day is), thus ironically giving comfort to the religious right. The ignorance and fearfulness of some quarters in humanities scholarship to Darwin’s theory (and science in general) is also something we ought to rid ourselves of: as I said above, we may have big brains but we are still just apes, our brains hard-wired to deal with the perils and opportunities of the African savannah: to deny that evolutionary explanations and perspectives have any role whatever in discussing human affairs is ludicrous.

Conclusions

But forget all that negativity, it is Darwin’s day after all. I recommend you seek out his work and the work of his successors and marvel at nature’s beauty and the beauty of Darwinian theory. Read Stephen Jay Gould, read Richard Dawkins, read J.B.S. Haldane, read Peter Medawar, read Alice Roberts, read Helena Cronin; read as much as you can on this magnificent topic.

Let us end, then, with the beautifully poetic final lines of the first edition of the Origin (subsequent editions added ‘by the Creator’ after ‘breathed’, something Darwin later regretted), and wish Darwin, the ‘clever old man’ (Gould’s words), a happy birthday:

'There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’




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