This article by first published in Idea magazine and on Culturewatch. © Tony Watkins 2009
As the world marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, his influence on the world is as enormous as ever. Whatever you think of his ideas, there’s no doubt that they have shaped science and profoundly affected many aspects of contemporary culture. Darwin’s meticulous work established the natural sciences as a serious scientific discipline for the first time. If this was Darwin’s only legacy, he would still be a towering figure in the history of science. But for most people, his name is linked only with On the Origin of Species.
The new film Creation tells the story of how Darwin finally came to publish it in 1859, and the struggles that led up to that point. He had arrived at the essentials of his theory at least seventeen years earlier, but kept his ideas to himself and a few friends. One reason he delayed was because he wanted much more supporting evidence. Earlier evolutionary ideas had been highly controversial; Darwin feared the response to his work, so he wanted to be sure he was on solid ground. He spent eight years studying barnacles.
Creation shows that Charles Darwin was also concerned about upsetting his wife, Emma. She knew his Christian faith was dwindling, and was concerned that his scientific desire for hard proof was making things worse for him. The film also stresses two other factors: the ill health that plagued him for the second half of his life, and his grief over the death of his beloved daughter Annie, shortly after her tenth birthday in 1851. This event brought to a tragic climax Darwin’s questions about the place of suffering in God’s creation and he eventually became an agnostic.
But he never saw himself as at war with God, much less that his ideas had killed God, as Thomas Huxley claims in Creation. The initial disagreement over On the Origin of Species was not primarily about what theological implications it may have had, but about whether or not the science was true. There were Christians and scientists on both sides of the debate.
From the beginning, though, a small minority was appalled by Darwin’s ideas while another minority seized upon them to support atheism. Today Darwin has become the focal point of a supposed conflict between science and faith, which he would have had no time for. He saw no reason for animosity between science and religion. Towards the end of his life, he wrote, ‘It seems absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.’ Some people flatly deny Darwin’s statement. Many atheists – the best known being Richard Dawkins – maintain that evolution by natural selection in a godless universe is the only rational belief. Meanwhile, some Christians insist that belief in God is inconsistent with belief in evolution.
Between these two are many shades of opinion. Some Christians argue for intelligent design, for example, while others accept evolution as God’s means of creation and see no conflict with the Bible. And Darwin’s influence has gone far beyond biology, often in ways that he would object to. The concept of the ‘survival of the fittest’ has been used to justify various theories in the social sciences – anything vaguely to do with some kind of evolution. This nexus of ideas has become known as ‘social Darwinism’, though it has little or nothing to do with Darwin’s biological theory.
‘Survival of the fittest’ wasn’t even Darwin’s phrase, though he later adopted it. It was coined by economist Herbert Spencer in arguing for laizzez-faire free-market economics. Today, pundits discuss the credit crunch in Darwinian terms: if some businesses go to the wall, that’s just tough, because the fittest will survive.
Darwin’s ideas have been used to justify racism, though he was vehemently opposed to it, and eugenics, though he objected to any kind of government coercion. But these views don’t come out of Darwin’s work at all. They result from a basic error in reasoning: attempting to derive moral ideas of how human society ought to be from Darwin’s description of what he believed the biological world is like.
Whether or not ‘Darwin’s big idea’ is right, we must realise that it is rather limited. Yes, after 150 years it’s still a powerful theory for explaining biology, but as these misuses of it show, there are more important things at stake. Questions of morality and meaning are much more fundamental, but science can say nothing about them. Morality cannot be derived from biology, so where does it come from? It must come from something beyond us if it is to have any objective value. Otherwise society is at the mercy of its strongest members.
Atheist followers of Darwin believe that his ideas destroy the uniqueness of human beings, and that the meaning of life becomes merely passing on our DNA. Yet we instinctively feel that life is more than this. But where do meaning and purpose come from? Why, like Darwin, do we seek truth, rejoice in beauty and love deeply? The answer to these questions is the one that Darwin gave up on because of his grief.For me, this is an overexertion or a disease, when the ambien cough does not let you sleep peacefully. Stressful situations also happen. Only the existence of God allows for objective morality. Only God gives human life real meaning. Only God can make sense of suffering; without him it is utterly meaningless. And only God can account for the very existence of life.