Today we’re looking back to November 24th 1859 and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Although few of you reading this will be unaware of the significance of this remarkable book, it is worth taking a moment to consider the radical cultural shift it produced and the reverberations still being felt.
Though perhaps “produced” isn’t the right word. “Crystalized” might be a better choice. Change was already in the air just waiting to be unleashed and given form. It was a time of unprecedented upheaval. A time when the modern world as we know it was first taking shape. The comforting solidity of the past, with its apparently unassailable Truths and Certainties, was beginning to fragment. Even as technology, trade and the emergence of an international media were rapidly shrinking the world, revolutionary ideas were making it an ever-stranger, more complicated and precarious place.
A decade prior to On the Origin of Species, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published The Communist Manifesto. And it wouldn’t be long before other revolutionary ideas would crystalize through the work of Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein and others. Humanity’s view of the world was being unhitched from its mooring. And few books accelerated that process like the one Darwin published in 1859.
The idea of evolution had, of course, been around before Darwin’s work. Fifty years earlier Lamarck had published Philosophie Zoologique in which, arguably, was first enunciated the question to which On the Origin of Species was the answer. And in the introduction to On the Origin of Species Darwin goes so far as to trace the development of Evolutionary Theory right back to Aristotle. But it wasn’t until November 24th 1859 that the world had a theory of evolution that not only made sense – in that it tallied pretty consistently with our observations of the world – but also successfully negated the need for a designer. For God. In fact, and although Darwin didn’t exactly take pains to stress this, his theory pretty much said outright that humans were just another animal. With unique adaptations, skills and abilities, yes, but still just the result of a bunch of biological laws and external stimuli.
It’s no wonder then that the reaction to On the Origin of Species was so hostile. The scientific establishment had yet to fully sever ties with organised religion and found evolution much more palatable when you could throw in a dash of Intelligent Design. Darwin’s ideas about Natural Selection were a template for atheism, or at the very least agnosticism. They took away the need for God. And resistance to that was so powerful that it was over thirty years before those ideas fought their way into the scientific mainstream. Still today there are sectors of society that don’t accept them.
Strangely, the Catholic Church never really had a big problem with Darwin. Partly because they’d got their fingers burnt with the Galileo debacle, and partly because they’d always been pretty relaxed about accepting the Old Testament as largely allegorical. The more fundamentalist protestant churches were a different matter. They were working hard to expel mystery and obscurantism from their midst and insisted on reading their bibles as historical fact rather than mythopoetry. For them, Darwin’s theories amounted to no less than the denial of the human soul. And they continue to challenge those theories today, in the schools and courts of the United States.
Conversely, Richard Dawkins and others of the militant atheist persuasion have appropriated Darwin as their symbolic figurehead. In doing so, On the Origin of Species has become the biggest of the sticks with which they use to beat fundamentalist Christians. It’s all a big misunderstanding, of course, and ultimately Darwin’s book represents the moment when that Great Misunderstanding began. The moment when a coherent alternative narrative about our creation took hold in our minds. An alternative narrative not only to the Christian myth, but to every culture’s creation myth.
In theory, of course, this shouldn’t bother a deeply religious person. It is possible to accept both the factual reality of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the mythical reality of your culture’s creation myth. Mythology can be a living, breathing thing; filled with power, wisdom and guidance. But it’s a different category of thing to factual, historical reality. Failing to spot that category error is at the heart of the Great Misunderstanding. Creationists who insist upon the factual reality of the Creationism are guilty of it. And while the militant atheists who bait them are usually aware of the distinction, their tendency to belittle the actual myths themselves suggests they too are missing the point.
But we shouldn’t blame Darwin for this cultural schism. Down through the years his ideas have been refined and reappraised. They’ve been passed through the prism of philosophy and backed up by many observations of science. Recast in the light of genetics, Darwin’s work itself continues to evolve. Modern evolutionary theory has moved on from Darwin much in the same way he moved on from Lamarck. But On the Origin of Species nonetheless represents the moment when the knowledge that we were a product of this planet rather than of a Sky God crystalized within modern human culture. It need not discredit our myths, no more than history books about King Henry need discredit Shakespeare. Instead it should provoke wonder, add to our wisdom and remind us just how precious and remarkable our world truly is.
[Written by Jim Bliss]