What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.
So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not so much.
The pollsters also tell us that America is unusually religious. Significantly more people believe in God than in the descent of the species, for sure. Something like 80% to 50% if we smooth the edges and throw salt over our shoulder. –I may be a skeptic but I’m still superstitious.
Caution, though: Pollsters tend to equate “being religious” with believing in God while people who are actually or nominally religious are often hedgy on the topic, making poll-taking an increasingly arduous business and the results increasingly incoherent and even contradictory. The bottom line is this, however: On the ground, America looks like a pretty religious, steeple-bedecked country. From the air, it looks like the country that gave the world the light bulb, the moon landing (and ‘Curiosity’ and Hubble), controlled atomic energy, the internet–and still manages to suck at teaching science.
A few things bother me about all this. Not least the number of people who take this debate seriously—who think it’s indicative of something ‘really important’. To them I say, Why?
There are certainly religious people out there who respond to the Darwin-question reflexively because it has been politicized and sloganeered. Remember the late 2011 GOP debates where only one candidate in the sideshow raised his hand in support of evolution—Portman, of blessed memory – the others eyeing each other nervously to see whose hands would stay squarely down and in view. Remember the applause? Sickening. I remember having to leave the room to slake my thirst with a shot of Jameson’s when I saw it.
But the hypocrisy betrays a deeper issue. The anti-Darwin camp has two distinct branches: those who really have a theological issue with the notion that species develop over time from rudimentary beginnings to more complex and advanced forms, until suddenly the whole process collapses and you get Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Just seeing if you are still paying attention.) And those who are intellectually lazy, uncurious, and believe what their friends believe, which probably comes with Tostitos, beer and vacation specials in Branson, MO. That Is to say, a lot of Darwin haters haven’t given a minute’s thought to Darwin in their whole hypoactive grill-it-and-eat it lives. They didn’t learn it from Mr Smeddle, their 9th grade biology teacher, who also coaches the chess team because he is tired of getting angry notes from mothers threatening to stink bomb his new Audi if he trashes the Bible. They didn’t learn it at the Yoknapatawpha Community College where they majored in small engine repair or Mall Security. They don’t talk about it at the weekly meal out at Chili’s where they wonder why their Appletini isn’t blue enough.
They think the people who do talk about it are weird and different, and some, because their friends are their friends, think there must be something subversive about it. They would believe it if you told them that Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were lovers, which is why people who believe in Darwin are almost always both gay and communists. Besides, how many times did Mr Smeddle have to remind his dozy, hormonally obedient class that it is “just a theory.” He did this while thinking to himself that the snickering fat kid with the dull brown eyes in the front row named Buddie is proof of recessive traits.
But hold on to that thought. The Darwin of the theory and the Darwin whose ideas informed modern evolutionary biology is one man in two undivine persons. A lot of good science can be taught without touching Darwin, just like a lot of good cosmology can be taught while still believing in God. The proof of this is that it happens every day. “Darwin” as a theory is not the basis for teaching the complex of disciplines we call the sciences. And this is in no way to detract from the fundamental importance of his thought. It is not to say you should teach around him, soft peddle his theory or consider him expendable. Let’s get that straight. But it is to say that both the people who think he is wrong or subversive of their religious views as well as people who want the first kind of people to see Darwin as the One True Guru and saviour of the rational soul are not really talking about science at all. They are talking about an emotionalized caricature of a view that does not seem to be very controversial outside underbelly America, the Islamic world, and covens of gristle-bearded Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv.
And it’s also to say that the way the subject is taught in schools guarantees its hot potato standing in the rank and file of committed, believing, conservative American Christians. I don’t mean to exempt Catholics and Jews from the battle, but the Catholic Church has been soft on Darwin since the time of Pius XII (d. 1958), and Jews have always rather liked old Charlie, as long as you don’t apply his ideas to race, economics and social theory; and even if you do, who wins? Just asking.
The Irish order of nuns who taught me in grammar school weren’t geniuses, but I remember Sister Mary Alacoque’s quick reply when I asked her one day if we came from monkeys. “I can’t say everyone did Joseph, but I’m quite sure about you.” When I got to serious stuff with the Benedictines a few years later, we were simply taught that evolution is a factual representation of the way God arranged things: brilliant isn’t He? But let’s be clear. It wasn’t Darwin who discovered this: it was Augustine and Thomas Aquinas many centuries before. Darwin, you see was a protestant and they have never discovered anything.
The Darwin cartoon that retarded [sicut dixit] Christians have manufactured of his ideas is based on ignorance and fear and ignorance and fear are the oxygen of conservative religion and conservative politics. It is why they are usually found in bed together. But I’m not sure the cure for ignorance is slamming the ignorant. If you want more Buddies in the front row, avoid the topic. If you want more school boards saying it can’t be taught or has to be taught alongside pieces of ancient mythology then make sure it is taught badly. A born again teacher who teaches bad science can say a lot with her voice when she says to a class of ignoramuses, just like her. “Now, some people say that our species is descended from an ape like ancestor. But…well, I can’t really say this, so I will just go on to tell you what the other theory says. Now I really like this one…” Be sure that this teacher exists multiply all over Texas and throughout the Bible belt.
I do happen to think that you have to be a little shy in the compression chamber not to “believe” in evolution. I also believe that people need to get that there is a reason America is a special case among the nations of the world, the Immaculate Contradiction, when it comes to the bible, guns and Darwin.
Because it is here in America that two things happened simultaneously in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that have only flowed together in the last one hundred years.
It is here that the radical and separatist religions of European Protestantism managed to survive and promote their doctrines about the Bible and salvation. Here they spawned mightily, and here they spread, even over the whole land. Some, like the puritans of New England, were rigid Cambridge-trained Calvinists, men of learning who considered the English church they left behind unpurged of pomp and Catholic superstition. Some, like the Ulster Scots mountain men of Tennessee and North Carolina, who came from a later incursion of riff-raff (lit., the remainder—men with no prospects who worked their fare to the new world out by labour) had never seen the inside of a school. If they were literate at all, it was because Grannie McCoy taught them from the Bible, but most weren’t.
Something else was happening in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia: The European Enlightenment found its constitutional and ideological embodiment in a new and highly experimental democracy, the world’s first modern example of what Lincoln would call a hundred years on ‘government by the people.’ No, that is not me being patriotic. It is me saying that while the raccoon hunters of America’s outback huddled in their towns and villages, married their cousins, and built their wooden churches for Holy Ghost preaching apart from the elite, the elite were doing something rather different. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Columbia (King’s College) Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers were all founded before 1800—three in the seventeenth century. To put this in perspective, Shakespeare died in 1616. Harvard opened its venerable oak doors in 1634. While this was happening, the raccoon hunters praised God, made whisky, sang tuneful songs of their distant Elizabethan past (“Barbry Allen” is my favourite: listen to Jean Redpath’s version) and were fruitful and multiplied. Their inflections and tropes for centuries were pure if embarrassing reminders of the dulcets of the England of yore, dosed with sour mash.
Even a foreigner who looks at an American Red-state Blue-state electoral map can see what has happened. What has happened is that the “One nation, under God, indivisible” slogan of the post-Civil War era has not held up to the social realities of the last century and a half. The offending passage indeed is not “under God” but the illusion that the United States is any sense One Nation.
It didn’t happen because of Darwin. It didn’t happen because of Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama. But sure as the world, it happened. It happened by natural increase, wealth and poverty, genetics, location, a shrinking continent and communications and the Civil War and loosening state boundaries. The culture wars are simply an expression of the two-nation reality that is modern America, that is politics, that is divided government, that is education, that is gun control, that is the educational agenda. The flowing together of these two realities after the Civil War, complicated by floods of immigration (but not primarily of the old guard Presbyterian hunters, English merchants and scholars, and gentleman farmers as afore) is also a country where those whose survival depended on Bible Truth and Gospel Lesson had to do business with those who had by and large survived very well without either. It’s no accident that the paradigm for this encounter—the Epic Moment—is geographically situated in a Tennessee court case of the 1920’s where a teacher very much like Mr. Smeddle, but far more courageous, was ‘accused’ of teaching evolution and berating the truth of the Genesis creation story.
So the very nearly 50-50 split over the Darwin Thing is almost too perfect a symbol of a nation that sometimes seems poised to fight another war. Heaven knows, there are enough guns to do it—several times over. A country that seems united only by its legal tender, MacDonalds, WalMart and outlet malls but deeply divided in every other way. It is spiritually divided, not between brights and dims, but between the knows and the know nots.
But let me end with a rip of the pro-Darwin lobbyists who are becoming something of a joke in their reverse caricature of the evangelical Darwin cartoon. Darwin was a man of his time. Any good intellectual historian knows that he was not doing more than being a good observer and a meticulous reporter of “the undeniable evidence of nature.” The century before him was abuzz with the word “development”: from Hegel (who died 28 years before the publication of Origin of Species) onward the model was set. History was not a static process that left the things it acted on as it found them. It was a dynamic flow that left ideas, languages, technologies, gods, and landscapes fundamentally altered. Darwin’s shocking idea was that given enough history—enough time—organic changes that would have been imperceptible over the lifespan of a single organism could be extrapolated to produce adaptations so profound that all existing biological life could be explained, in all its variety, as a result of earlier forms. Our species didn’t stand outside that process but within it. The discovery of the last generation is that the same process affects the environment; and the news from science in the last fifty years is that the universe itself is a process not a closed orb with fixed coordinates and boundaries.
It seems to me that the “evolutionists” do themselves a disservice when they rip Darwin out of this intellectual matrix only to insist that he was “right” and religion is “wrong.” I mean simply that evolution is much bigger than they are making it. Darwin’s revolution was the biological wing of our discovery of process. Ironically, the same process in the same century he lived had already given us literary archaeology and biblical criticism, ways of dating and comparing ancient texts, discoveries of analogues that made it obvious that the biblical stories were adaptations of earlier tales—the same sort of thing that would soon be applied to biological species and the cosmos.
To make a cult of Darwin’s rightness may preserve his importance. But it prevents the student of history from seeing him—with Marx, Feuerbach, Mueller, Freud and a dozen others– as one of the expositors of the Hegelian tradition. Perhaps that is because he is British, and the others weren’t and it is a British trait to stand apart from the Germans. More likely it is because Hegel himself pronounced negatively on evolution in his Philosophy of Nature–
“It is a completely empty thought to represent species as developing successively, one after the other, in time…. The land animal did not develop naturally out of the aquatic animal, nor did it fly into the air on leaving the water….Man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is.”
But as Stephen Houlgate has noted, Hegel’s quarrel with a theory he never read (but obviously anticipated) has to do with his rigid insistence on logic as the determiner of events: “Hegel’s anti-evolutionary stance obviously has its source in his philosophical interest in the logical rather than temporal relations between phenomena in nature. What he seeks to understand is not the historical process whereby phenomena in nature have come to be the way they are, but the logic that requires nature to have the structure that it now has: ‘the point of interest is not to determine how things were millions of years ago … the interest is confined to what is there before us’ and to recognize in the present character of nature ‘the characteristics of the Concept’.” This in turn was why Darwin’s thinking was a true revolution: because it recognized a principle of change that went beyond the logical, temporal confines of history into patches of time that the new science of geology was just beginning to make known.
But no poet, no scientist, no naturalist, no anthropologist –no intellectual of the nineteenth century was untouched by Hegel’s understanding of the transforming power of time and history. So while we applaud Darwin’s great idea, let’s also trim him to size. Let’s not do Darwin days and Darwin’s birthday as though he is the greatest secular saint. Let’s avoid making him a tribal factotum to irritate religious people, a barometer to test the scientific orthodoxy of the mild dissenter. And most of all, let us develop a pedagogy for the teaching of evolution based on the principles that made the theory possible. To do that, we need a chapter in our high school and college texts called ‘”The Discovery of Change in the Nineteenth Century” that integrates the information for student who otherwise sees history as a hodgepodge of unrelated information. What Darwin knew, because of his experimental model, that Hegel didn’t, because of his logical one, is that the historical task is basically limited to describing things as they are in a temporal framework made puny by the nature of process that sweeps living things along over millions of years with no regard for their security or success.
We don’t need to teach for or against Darwin’s theory. But we need to explain to our students that theory in this case means “explanation,” not a best guess. We don’t need to “teach the controversy”—there isn’t one. Creationism is false and evolutionary creationism is unproved. We need to produce scientists who are humanistic enough and humanities teachers who are scientific enough to see how fields of knowledge intersect—have always intersected—and nourish thinking about the world in a multidisciplinary way. Darwin can be an indispensable starting point for that conversation, but only if we stop asking people if they believe in his theory.