Happy Birthday, Charles February 22, 2009

posted Apr 14, 2009, 11:36 AM by Mike Allen   [ updated Apr 14, 2009, 6:37 PM ]
Born 200 years ago, February 12, 1809, Charles Darwin shares his birthday with someone else you know. No, it's not Don Mohr. It's Abraham Lincoln. Two men born on the same day who changed the world forever. Both of them were emancipators. Lincoln freed the slaves from physical servitude, and Darwin freed the human mind from superstition. Both men were geniuses in their own way, though Darwin was more of a Renaissance man – he was a zoologist, a botanist, an explorer, a travel writer, a philosopher, an abolitionist, a doting father, and an intellectual revolutionary with an utterly conservative lifestyle. 

Born in Shrewsbury, England, Darwin's father was a successful physician and investor, so that young Charles was able to pursue his interests without financial concerns. Charles was baptized in the Anglican Church, but he attended the Unitarian chapel with his mother, and his father and his father's father were free thinkers. Charles attended both the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge University, where he graduated as an Anglican parson. During his studies, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible, and he saw the adaptations of species as evidence of a divine design. 

After his graduation, Darwin decided to take a trip that would change not only his life but the history of the world. He was invited to be an unpaid naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, which was embarking on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America. For the next five years, Darwin explored and collected animal and plant specimens along the east and west coasts of South America, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australis, and the Cape of Good Hope. Upon returning to England, he spent his life compiling monumental amounts of evidence supporting his theory of evolution. 

I should probably pause to point out that scientists use the word “theory” differently than lay people. For scientists, a theory is a concept that is overwhelmingly supported by evidence. When most people use the word “theory,” however, they mean a suspicion or hunch with little regard for the facts, so that one theory or hunch is as good an another. As I see it, this is one of the problems in the whole debate over evolution and creationism or intelligent design. Creationists think that the theory of evolution is just a hypothesis or hunch. It would be like saying, “Why should I believe in gravity? It's just a theory.” Creationists also like to point out that scientific theories have changed. That is true, though it is rare. When scientific theories are modified, it is because they are accommodating the facts. Theories do not change because some scientist somewhere acted on a whim and decided that an old theory just didn't feel right anymore. 

Darwin sat on his findings because he was afraid. He was afraid of the reaction of religious people. He confiding to a friend that publishing his theory of evolution would be “like confessing a murder,” and he had a nightmare of being hanged. His findings supporting evolution certainly changed his religious views. By the time he returned from the Beagle expedition, he was critical of the Bible as history, and he wondered why all religions should not be equally valid. Since natural selection explained the complexity of design in nature, he no longer believed in a supernatural designer, and he could no longer believe that an omnipotent, loving God would cause or allow suffering or cruelty in His creation. He thought that religion was a tribal survival strategy, though he still believed that God was the ultimate law-giver in terms of decreeing the laws of nature. He quit going to church and instead took walks on Sunday morning while his family attended. As he grew older, he became more reticent about his religious views, but he did admit late in life that he was not an atheist but an agnostic. 

Upon learning that Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish his own theory of evolution, Darwin took the leap and published On the Origin of Species in 1859. His intuition about the reaction of religious people was correct. Fundamentalists and orthodox Christians denounced Darwin as an atheist and heretic and mocked him by misrepresenting his findings as saying that people are descended from monkeys. Scientists, however, hailed him as a genius, and liberal clergy interpreted natural selection as an instrument of God's design. Too shy to argue his theory in public, Darwin left that to his friend Thomas Huxley, who became Darwin's bulldog in the public debate. 

The most famous debate on evolution, before the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee in 1925, occurred at the Natural History Museum at Oxford University in 1860 between Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who made it known to friends that he was out to “crush Darwin.” Wilberforce asked Huxley if he were descended from apes on his father's or his mother's side of the family. Huxley replied, “I would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood.” Years later when the bishop died after being thrown headfirst from a horse, Huxley observed, “For once, reality and his brains came into contact, and the result was fatal.” So why should we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species? I can think of three reasons.