Why Darwin's Dangerous Idea Still Means Everything
I've pondered putting out a number of different things this week, and finally decided that it's important to take a little time today, Darwin Day, to appreciate the phenomenal shift in human consciousness and understanding, and the dramatic increase in quality of life, that we owe to Charles Darwin's "dangerous" idea. I'll confess I am very personally attached to this topic. I'd rejected evolution by natural selection in favor of young earth creationism, per my fundamentalist upbringing, until early adulthood. And only fully came around about the time I deconverted, in my mid-twenties.
Let's be clear about one thing: biology as we know it is inconceivable without evolutionary theory. Most of the medical treatment that saves lives and improves our health is unfathomable without it. Our understanding of our ecosystem, and how living things coexist and struggle within it, including us, would be incomprehensible. And in fact many useful models of change over time and rising complexity, whether in language or culture or economics, branch off from Darwin's model. Getting that model right, of how species arise and adapt, was nothing short of a game changer for humanity. He was so right, he didn't even know how right he was, because DNA had not yet been discovered and he lacked the benefit of genetic science that we now enjoy. Yet when all those discoveries arose, and in fact the more we learn about the living world, the more true Darwin's theory becomes.
It's more important than ever that we stand up for science, and not back off when the truth is stake. Yes, even if it's sometimes offensive to some certain religions. A frightening number of Americans (about a third, and you can guess which one) reject this well-established science, and the underlying reasons for this rejection are poorly understood. On the surface, it's that they've been told it's at odds with a sacred text in which they must have absolute faith, and therefore no amount of evidence could possibly be just cause to change their minds. And that's certainly true. But beneath that is a belief that, according to creationist doctrine, if evolution is true, then human beings are "just" animals or "just" bundles of chemicals, and that would be an intolerable reality. Now, while I do not identify with the "facts don't care about your feelings" faction of my fellow atheists, it should be noted that our discomfort with a fact about reality is no kind of argument for whether or not it is so. Nature does not exist for our benefit, and doesn't owe us a rosy outlook. But if this is the best argument that can be mustered, sure, I'll play --
Yes, we are in fact animal beings, and like all of the everything that exists, are made up of many chemicals. What I cannot grasp about the hostility to an all-natural reality is the "just." Just? Just animals? Just chemicals? The living and natural world of which we are a part is an incredible thing. An incredible web of things. It's wondrous. For my part, I am extremely honored to get to exist, to be conscious, to be anything at all. It's beyond my capacity to express it in words, especially if I expect anyone to read this whole blog. The more we understand about nature, the more there is to pursue. Just? That you are here at all means you are descended from countless survivors and are made of strong stuff. You have an astonishingly complex brain and are part of an even more complex social order, making our very species an exercise in the universe attempting to understand itself. There is no shame in being animals made up of chemicals. Even if were weren't amazing, it would just be the truth about us. But as it happens, we are amazing.
Just? As in, that might not be enough? How could it not be? It's everything.
Part two of the "just animals/chemicals" case, is the assumption that there can be no basis for morality or cooperation if we're "all just animals" and don't owe each other anything; what they call "social Darwinism." And I would give this claim a little more air time if it weren't simply laughable. For on, it isn't at all rooted in biology or any moral philosophy of any origin. There's also the issue of conservative Christian America constantly advocating for exactly the kind of feudalist and brutal society that they pretend to fear.
These are all things that "mean" or "militant" atheists like myself have been sounding the alarm on for many years, the disturbing implications of this mass stubborn refusal of reality. We've warned over and over that it could easily go from ridiculous to dangerous if, for instance, these same people chose to refuse other aspects of reality in order to safeguard their religious and political identity. Such as rejecting the evidence of an environmental crisis. Or a pandemic. Or the results of an election. I would have loved to have been wrong, and have the dogmatism of the religious right contained to biology alone.
It's nearly impossible to be entirely objective of course. There is no view from nowhere. But we are far better off believing more true things, and fewer false things, even if it means we have to re-calibrate ourselves from time to time. Humanity has been through a few of these massive paradigm shifts, and if it takes another hundred years or so for evolutionary theory to be fully accepted, that's actually not too bad. Copernicus published his heliocentric model in the early 1500s, and Galileo was condemned by the Catholic church for promoting the theory a full century later. There was no formal admission that he was right about how the Earth goes around the Sun until.....1992. These things take time.
For pandemic reasons, I was not able to continue the tradition I began last year of having a Darwin Dinner, but we'll be back next year to celebrate this dangerous and very important idea, and stand up for science.