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The Charles Darwin dilemma

May 11, 2010

The Charles Darwin dilemma

No figure in modern science has drawn so much controversy as Darwin and no other figure has been examined so closely. His book ‘Origin of Species’ reads like a boring academic argument but in many ways has been romanticized and condemned by people of various sectors. Yet despite the large number of opinionated orators there is no indication that Darwin was pushing a political or theological agenda. Yet for some reason he has become the figure of division and ideological touchstone. From Fundamentalists to Marxists to Fascists we have a mad scramble to either blame Darwin or to use him to support agendas that he never approved of himself.

In an interview on ABC Radio his great, great Grandson explained that Darwin was planning to have his works published posthumously to avoid the expected controversy. He changed his mind after reading the same theory being proposed by a New Zealand academic. Charles Darwin was apparently adored by his wife who was also a highly educated and intelligent person and they had a very happy relationship. However his wife never shared his views on evolution and was convinced that he was dead wrong. We have here, even at the beginning of his work, the seeds of disagreement that has followed Darwinism over the years. It was a theory that was both exciting for some and earth shattering for others. In one publication Darwin had given rise to a reasonable explanation for the diversity of all live on Earth but at the same time he gave a whole raft of ideologues a book that they could cease upon and use to sell their own agendas. “Darwinism proves this and therefore all I say is correct!”

Ceasing upon scientific theories to sell an unrelated agenda is a common practice used by fools and the unscrupulous alike. We have parallels in psychology with Freud being used like a weapon to intimidate people were opponents of a view point are suddenly labeled as ‘phobic’ or hiding some dark sexual secret. We also have the exploitation of the ambiguities of the theory of Quantum Mechanics being used to sell New Age movements and fads. The book called ‘The Secret’ is one such exploitation. The problem with such methodology is that it is taking the theoretical and presenting it as solid fact. People who cannot distinguish between theory and concrete evidence are in fact operating on blind faith and as such they have a lot in common with religious fundamentalism. Some people actually get angry when they are reminded that Darwinism is a theory and can be challenged on scientific grounds.

Political tussles over the years have never had a weapon in their arsenal like Darwinism. Genetics is a close second but for true triumphalism Darwinian politics is king. Survival of the species is the basis of Marxist thinking and social Darwinism is the cornerstone of fascism. Two diametrically opposed ideologies both laying claim to being scientifically based.

The impact upon religious, particularly bible based protestant religions was enormous. The notion that the earth was created in six days with man being the pinnacle of creation was suddenly thrown into flux. It was argued that, if all animals were evolving and man is an animal then how could man be created in god image? Taken to another logical conclusion Darwinism had created an escape clause where atheist could point to Darwinism as proof that God is no longer required. Others took the theory to new extremes using it as the basis of Eugenic Societies. Even within religions there were fights over the implications of evolution and theology. Argument arose over whether the human soul exists for all eternity or evolves to become the equal of God. Such arguments rarely end happily. Most religions coped in one of two ways: either rejecting the theory outright or accepting that this could have been Gods method of creation. It is important to note that most religious schools do teach Darwinism as part of their science curriculum, indicating that the religious ramifications may actually be exaggerated.

Darwin’s reluctance to publish his theory before death was well founded because he understood where these arguments could lead. Yet he has been lumbered with so much blame that he did not deserve. He is no more responsible for how people twisted his ideas than Mercedes is for carjacking. We could also fall into the trap of hero worship and conclude that Darwin could do no wrong but that would also be false. Even the introduction to Origin of Species that I read in 1984 contained the criticism that much of his original text was based upon supposition. Had the book been published in today’s peer review environment it may not have survived. However more research has been done and much of biological science works on the assumption that evolution exists. The real trap is when the theory becomes blind faith and ceases to be questioned and re examined as additional discoveries are made. Such an approach would be something that even Darwin would find unacceptable.

I leave the question of whether Darwin was correct to the reader. Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection has possibly been used for so much that it should not have been and treated with fear and praise for reasons beyond science. The question is not whether Darwin was correct but would it really matter, or is there another theory that will make his obsolete. In that regard perhaps the next 200 years will look at his works with less distraction. Ignore the noisy crowd and get on with the business of scientific discovery.

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