Friday, April 12, 2013

Untimely Meditations on Darwin

The journal Literary Theory has a review by Marek Kohn of Peter J Bowler’s Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin.  I haven’t read the book, but from the review I gather these propositions:
Darwin’s theory was premature. 
Darwin's radical insight 'distorted' the process of scientific development by answering the question of life's variety before everybody else had managed to formulate it. If it had waited its proper time, the ground would have been prepared for it by earlier theories, which were wrong in ways that made them acceptable. Darwin argued for gradual evolution in nature, but the theory he presented was a sudden, disruptive leap.
Darwin’s theory would have emerged in the due course of time. 
An idea so simple and profound would inevitably have gained its place in the science of life sooner or later. In Bowler's richly stimulating counterfactual history this happens at the same time at which it occurred in real life - between the world wars. The difference is that the biology into which it becomes integrated is more impressed by embryos and less by genes, laying greater weight upon development and less upon heredity. Bowler sees this as a healthy difference in emphasis, and implies that modern 'evo-devo' (evolutionary developmental) biology perceives a truth that is too subtle for Darwinism to discern. This says more about Bowler's attitude towards Darwin's dangerous idea than it does about the science, in which selection theory and developmental biology are complementary partners, not rivals.
Darwin is innocent of the distortions and abuses of his theory that are often cited against him. 
Bowler exonerates Darwinism of the historical evils for which it has been blamed, up to and including both world wars. The counterfactual method justifies itself most emphatically in Bowler's systematic exposition of how theories of racial hierarchy, the identification of might with right, heartlessness towards the poor, eugenics and eventually Nazism had more than enough material to establish themselves without appropriating anything from Darwin except his name. 'Social Darwinism' was not, in fact, Darwinian. Nineteenth-century racial thought seethed with denials of common descent: Darwin's vision of humankind as a single species was a moderating influence.
All three propositions are plausible.  The last is certainly right.  To take but one example, Hitler had no grasp of Darwin or of anything else in science.  His theory of race in Mein Kampf owes rather to a distortion of simple genetics than of natural selection.  Malthus is much more responsible for very bad political doctrines and actions than Darwin ever was. 
As for the second, it seems clear that Darwinian theory did not really take hold until much later in the history of science.  It is only when it is paired with Mendelian genetics that took its place as the center of modern biology.  It is difficult to imagine that it would not have been discovered independently as biology developed. 
I think that the first proposition is plausible, but not for reasons that I can glean from the review.  A scientific theory that is advanced before the culture and the apparatus of science are in a position to make use of it should simply have to bide its time.  I have argued that Aristotle’s approach was two thousand years premature in that regard.  Why should a “a sudden, disruptive leap” of scientific imagination pose more difficulty than that? 
I think, nonetheless, that Darwin’s book, coming when it did, did create a problem that lingers to this day.  It came just at the moment that Biblical religion was losing its position of authority in Western Civilization.  Secular institutions had greatly reduced the power of the churches in politics and law.  Science was steadily advancing against the Biblical view of the nature and origins of the heavens and the earth.  For those who suppose that the world view of science is mutually exclusive of the Biblical view, Darwinian Theory came to be indelibly stamped with the colors of the former side.  To this day Darwinism is viewed by most Christians (and now by those Islamists who know of it) as a doctrine of atheism. 
That said, I am not at all certain that it would not have happened anyway.  The fading of religious authority was probably inevitable and natural selection, if it had indeed emerged in the middle of the last century instead of a century before, would probably have aroused the same enemies. 
I continue to think that the religious opponents of Darwinism focus on the wrong issue.  Darwin’s theory of common descent is thought to be exclusive of the Biblical account of creation.  Perhaps it is, but no more so than geology or astronomy.  Most critics of Darwinism, even some creationists and the Intelligent Design folks, don’t reject science altogether.  The problem is that during the age of Darwin, religious thought tried to protect the Biblical view by drawing a protective line between scientific explanations of physics on the one hand and the understanding of life on the other.  Life, with its obvious features of design, seemed to be safe.  Darwinian theory crossed that boundary. 
Today, matters have largely reversed the problem.  The emergence of the various species is much easier to explain than the origin of life itself or the origin of a Kosmos in which life is possible. 
I think that the big problem that Darwin poses for Biblical religion concerns not creation but sin.  According to the Bible, sin and death are the result of the fall of man.  According to Darwinian Theory, sin and death are much older than man.  That is a real problem.  It doesn’t mean that science and the Bible are mutually exclusive.  It does mean that there is a real tension.  That tension would be present whenever Darwin’s theory had been articulated. 


  1. I'm not sure the idea that sin and death are older than man is necessarily a problem for biblical religion. Christian tradition has Satan falling (sinning) before man is created. I'm not sure that idea is supported by the bible itself, but it seems to be widely accepted and if it has caused the kind of tension that exists between Christianity and Darwinism, I haven't noticed it.

  2. Miranda: you might square the circle here by appeal the story of Satan's fall. As you suggest, it is not clear that that story is Biblical. I know as a boy that I understood the serpent in the garden to be the Devil; however, there is little in the story itself to suggest that.

    If we were to reconcile the ancient biological roots of sin with the Biblical account in such way as that, it would surely transform the traditional reading of Genesis. According to that reading, man and the world were created without flaws; it was human misbehavior that brought sin and death into the world. I think that that is standard doctrine for both the Western and the Eastern churches. If Satan in fact introduced both before man even got here, then human kind looks like the children of a bad divorce.

    It seems to me that the basic Christian teaching has always been that sin is inexplicable. There was no reason for the transgression; it was an act of sheer freedom. Likewise it can be mended only by an equally inexplicable grace.

    One that Darwinian theory certainly does is to make sin entirely explicable.

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  4. I grew up thinking Satan had possessed the snake too, but it always troubled me, because I didn't understand why God would curse the snake if the devil made him do it. I felt a bit better when I realized that Satan wasn't there.

    It's possible, though, that sin was introduced before Adam and Eve got into the garden. Otherwise, what was making the snake sin and if he wasn't sinning, why was he punished?

    I think I must have missed the teaching that sin was supposed to be inexplicable. That wasn't something I was ever taught. Therefore, the idea that sin might be explained doesn't really like a threat to Christianity to me. Some might even welcome an explanation.

    Grace was never impressive to me because it was inexplicable. Instead, it was impressive because it wasn't earned or deserved.

    You use the story of Jean Valjean as an example in another post. I will use it here. In class, you mention that the story of the Bishop who claims that he has given Jean Valjean his silver as a gift is what Christanity is all about. I agree.

  5. I somehow missed this comment until tonight. To say that the original sin was inexplicable means that there was no reason for Eve and Adam to transgress. They had everything they needed and had no problems that required a solution. The garden was good without qualification.

    If the founding family did not sin out of want or out of some innate inclination, then why did they do it? You may say because God granted them freedom, but that only explains how they were able to do it; it does not explain why they used their freedom in that way. They just did. Surely that is the point of the story.

    When I say that grace is equally inexplicable I mean precisely that "it wasn't earned or deserved". If there was not reason to expect it then there is no way to explain it.

    As for the subtle serpent, I always thought that he WAS Satan and I think that is the orthodox reading. I have to say that allowing him into the garden, if read as more than a metaphor for the possibility that Adam and Eve would abuse their liberty, makes it look like we were set up to take a fall.

  6. An interesting twist: a review of a book one hasn't read!