Amazon.com lists Darwin’s magnum opus as the 7,861st most popular book on its website. The best-selling book of all time, is of course, the Christian Bible. In The Origin of Species, Darwin appeals to reason in laying out his argument that species (including Homo sapiens, except not claiming so directly) were not created (i.e. had no need of a Creator), but had evolved through a process of evolution by natural selection. The Bible appeals to the human heart in its explanations of the vagaries and vicissitudes of man’s relationship to nature, to his place in society, and to his own soul. On a fundamental, rational level, Darwin’s arguments are nigh well unassailable. The Bible instead requires belief, or at least the suspension of disbelief. As man is a giddy, emotional animal, he naturally gravitates to the argument best positioned to infuse his life with emotional meaning—preferring the argument that plucks at his heart strings; the one that stirs his soul. Thus the Bible trumps Darwin in popularity as an explicator of man’s place in nature, providing exemplary proof of what neuroscience has already discovered—reason is the hand-maiden of emotion, not the other way around.
I picked up a copy of Darwin’s masterpiece at my local bookstore on one of those bored dog-day August Sunday afternoons you get down here in the South. I owe a lot to boredom and air conditioning. Together, they certainly have helped fertilize the seeds of whatever natural intellectual talent I might possess. Without air conditioning, I’d probably just sit around under a shade tree, trying not to move. With it, I stay inside trying to find something to occupy my mind. As there are numerous volumes of the classics I still haven’t read, I figure I’ll never lack for something engaging to do.
I have tried to convince my video-playing college student son when he’s home on break that it is quite okay for him to try a bit of learning on his own when he’s bored—that he doesn’t have to limit his inquiries into the world around him to solely those things taught in class. At best, I might get a raised eyebrow out of him, after which he goes straight back to his video games. Like all parents, I want better for my children than I had. But not so much in material wealth. How much more than enough is enough? I rather wish my children would learn earlier than me that formal schooling is perhaps the absolute worst way of learning anything—that all it usually does is douse the intellectual fires. But my kids (the daughter is a junior in high school) ignore me. Like pretty much everything after the age of fifteen, it’s something they’ll have to learn on their own, if ever at all. My video-playing college student son hasn’t read Origin, but he’d think I’d lost my mind if I tried to exhort and cajole him into reading it, even though I’m spending roughly twenty-five thousand dollars a year so that he might get an “education”. Reading Origin costs just a few dollars and a few missed video game sessions, yet has the potential of reshaping in a more reasonable and intelligent manner one’s whole philosophy of existence. It’s doubtful anything of his French, economics, history, or bowling (yes, bowling) classes remotely approach the life-changing potential that Origin holds.
Nature selects for the industrious and efficient. Fortunately for American kids (or unfortunately, depending on one’s time perspective), they face virtually no short-term selection pressure. For the immediate term, lying around playing video games is not an attribute that will be punished to the point of extinction. As an efficient waste of time when there’s time that needs wasting, playing video games may even be rewarded. But only in the short run. In the long run, hungrier and more industrious individuals will move in to exploit the economic space created by the kids on the sofa.
Though not actually having read Darwin before picking up this book, I have read dozens of books explaining, expanding, defending or excoriating the theory he laid out in Origin. Reading the words straight from his pen felt like déjà vu all over again. From Gould to Dennett to Dawkins and numerous other popular science writers, echoes of their musings rumbled in my head as I finally got around to reading their source material. Nothing seemed new. It struck me that in its unaltered form (with a few exceptions to be covered later), The Origin of Species really has become the Bible of the life sciences—everything from the obvious biology, but also economics, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, etc., are founded upon its premise. It is the Word and Darwin its Moses. Because fundamentally, Darwin proposed a tautology: things that exist do so because they can. Darwin’s simple observation also applies to the inanimate world–the planets and solar systems and elements and every other thing in the universe exists because it can. If it can’t exist, it doesn’t. Or, if it can only exist for a short time (the dinosaurs, Homo sapiens-probably, Einsteinium, etc.) then it only exists for a short time. Darwin provided a mechanism for culling out things that can exist from those that can’t, calling it “natural selection”, but that too is a tautology. Nature obviously “selects” for existence everything that is seen to exist. If there are no elements with 300 protons in their nuclei, then it is because the ordinary operation of nature does not allow for them; it does not “select” them for existence. So on a very basic level, all Darwin did was state the obvious.
And the obvious was clear long before Darwin came around to state it for the latest iteration of mankind’s cyclical intellectual “progression”. As long ago as about 75 B.C., Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher in Rome, described the origin and evolution by natural selection of species, amongst a host of other things, in his epic poem, On the Nature of Things:
Many monsters too the earth of old tried to produce, things of strange face and limbs…some without feet, some without hands, some without mouth, some without eyes…Every other monster…of this kind earth would produce, but in vain; for nature set a ban on their increase, they could not reach the coveted flower of age, nor find food, nor be united in marriage…and many races of living things must then have died out and been unable to beget and continue their breed. For in the case of all things which you see breathing the breath of life, either craft or courage or speed has from the beginning of its existence protected and preserved each particular race…Those to whom nature has granted none of these qualities would lie exposed as a prey and booty to others, until nature brought their kind to extinction.
Two thousand years before Darwin came around to relieve the world of its muddle-headed thinking that some God of the human imagination, created in the image of man, populated the earth by simply creating out of his anthropomorphized whim every living thing according to its kind, Lucretius did much the same thing, only his observations tilted at the windmills of Rome’s pagan gods. Epicurus believed that the source of mankind’s angst was his belief that the gods controlled his fate. Lucretius, perhaps analogously to Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, or maybe to Darwin’s modern-day atheistic bulldog, Richard Dawkins, tried to prove that the gods were irrelevant.
Thus nothing ever changes. The cyclical progression continues apace. Darwin’s theory, like Lucretius’s, will one day fade into the mists of time, only to be rediscovered again by some brilliant modern version of Darwin or Lucretius. Whoever it is that causes the scales of religious emotion and devotion to again fall from humanity’s eyes will be doing so for at least the third time since the dawn of Western civilization (I am not sufficiently versed in Eastern religion and culture and science to know how often it has similarly produced its own Darwins).
All that said, Darwin’s exegesis on existence and speciation and evolution and natural selection should be read by every child in school, at least by the eighth grade, and then maybe again before they graduate. The premise is so simple that it needs constant reinforcing. Things exist because they can, and some anthropomorphized Judeo-Christian idea of god has nothing to do with it. Learn it, youngsters, and much of what confuses you about this world will be clarified.
But now, let’s actually get to the book, and to some particular aspects of Darwin’s argument that bear closer analysis.
In the forward, written by George Levine, a professor of English literature at Rutgers University, there is a discussion towards the end about Lamarckism. Lamarck was the biologist who believed that acquired traits, as in a giraffe stretching its neck for food, could be inherited by subsequent generations. We know, in some respects, this to be false. Acquired traits are lost with the generation possessing them (aside from culture, which in the human experience can survive, and is unique to humans, at least as regards the quantity of culture which might be disseminated through the ages). But perhaps acquired traits are acquired because of some genotype that is carried amongst the population which allows for the stretching of necks, or the helmets on fleas (a reference to a study which has explored how fleas can inherit helmets from their ancestors having acquired them during life), according to environmental demands? It would seem to me that the genetically driven ability to adapt to the environment in which an organism finds itself would be a most desirable trait, one which might yield fantastically superior survivability.
The human genome comes to mind, with its 98% or so of so-called junk DNA, as possibly having been selected for its adaptability—its ability to dispense traits on the fly, if you will. Who’s to say that the “junk” isn’t there for the purpose of immediate adaptation when necessary? Given how limited is our knowledge of the purpose of the various genetic configurations found amongst humans, and the remarkable ability of humans to adapt to whatever environment in which they find themselves, could it not be the case that there is an adaptability contained within the silent aspects of the human genome that holds the clue to humanity’s fantabulous successes at surviving and thriving over almost all the globe? It is something to which Darwin could not have been privy, as he only understood genetics from phenotypes expressed among organisms. Yet today, where every tidbit of genetic information is dissected and distilled relentlessly by scientists in pursuit of some Holy Grail of heredity, there seems to be very little speculation along these lines. Perhaps the idea of Lamarckism, so thoroughly discredited by Darwin’s apologists (but not by Darwin himself), is so repugnant to the Darwinian catechism that no consideration of it can be allowed. Nobody said a neo-Darwinian was necessarily bereft of a belief system.
A few of Darwin’s speculations in Origin turned out to be wrong, but only due to the limited extent of information at his disposal, not for lack of proper reasoning. For example, Darwin thought “…it highly probable that our domestic dogs have descended from several wild species.” Through genetic research, we are all but certain that all dogs are descended from wolves, a single species that begat multitudes of varieties under the guiding hand of man’s artificial selection. Regarding Lamarck’s idea of acquired traits being heritable, Darwin said, “I think it can be shown that this does sometimes happen”, which seems ludicrously incorrect to today’s scientists, and particularly to those vested in the belief that natural selection operating on randomly generated genetic variation explains everything, eliminating the need for a Creator, and thereby perhaps disproving his existence (e.g., Dawkins, esp.). But Darwin’s Lamarckian musing might well be akin to Einstein’s cosmological constant, which Einstein inserted into his equations to make the universe behave as he expected it should. Neo-Darwinists discredited and disavowed Darwin’s Lamarckism, but there is growing evidence that some acquired traits appear more frequently in descendant populations than would be expected by random variation. Perhaps prohibiting potential Lamarckism from Darwin’s theory will one day be regretted as the biggest mistake since Einstein inserted his cosmological constant, removed it, and then lived to see it reinserted for a completely different reason than he had imagined.
Darwin did not seem especially convinced of the idea of continental drift, preferring instead to attribute the similarities among species populating vastly separated areas to migration north and south due to climatological variations:
But I do not believe that it will ever be proved that within the recent period continents which are now quite separate, have been continuously, or almost continuously, united with each other and with the existing ocean islands.
Depending on what he meant by “recent”, this speculation proved false. According to modern geology, continents drift together and apart regularly, and have been joined together several times in Earth’s past, most recently about 300 million years ago as the supercontinent known as Pangea, which began breaking apart and into the configuration we see today some 200 million years ago. Darwin had no way of knowing the vastness of geologic time, nor the slowness with which natural selection might work its speciation magic. But in many ways, the notion of continental drift and plate tectonics is far more important to speciation by natural selection than is, for example, Malthus’ dire population predictions, which heavily influenced the construct of Darwin’s theory.
Darwin could also be accused holding what would now be considered racist views. In explaining some troubles with classification, particularly among and between varieties and species, he mentioned, “If it could be proved that the Hottentot had descended from the Negro, I think he would be classed under the Negro group, however much he might differ in colour and other important characters from negroes.” “Hottentot” is the name bestowed on a certain West African people, the Khoikhoi, by European colonists in the seventeenth century. It is considered today to be derogatory and disrespectful. But during Darwin’s time, it was a perfectly acceptable (among Europeans) means of referring to people from West Africa. It is not proper to compare moral virtue across disparate times. Moral precepts are always situational and subjective. But it is clear, in his remark, that Darwin believed there to be some fundamental biological differences among the races.
And it did not take long for Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to be applied to human beings. Herbert Spencer, a Darwin contemporary, described man, and the society of man, (among others) as engaged in a struggle from which only fittest might survive (Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”). Soon after Spencer’s observation that natural selection applied to humans, both individually and socially, the eugenics movement began, proposing that only the fittest of human races and individuals should be allowed to procreate, fueling the innate tendency for like to favor like, offering pseudo-scientific rationale for the racist urges nesting at the core of the human soul.
Darwin’s theory perfectly explains how a slender, dark-skinned, curly-haired African might metamorphose into a squat, blubbery, straight-haired Inuit. Given enough time (though scientists don’t allow for much—only about 200,000 years since mankind start his meanderings from his East African roots, which is part of why I believe the human genome has been selected for adaptability), and cloistered breeding populations, natural selection would adapt the human body to the environment in which it found itself. Thus evolved what are now referred to as races among humans. Wanderlust did for humans what selective breeding did to the wolf, creating a litany of varieties adapted to the purposes demanded of the particular environment. Denying that an African and an Inuit don’t have some substantial differences in phenotype expression, as biologists afraid that the ugly head of eugenics might again rear its head often do, supposes that the same mechanism through which natural selection works its magic only partially applies to humans. No, it works for all creatures, great and small and at all times and places.
Darwin also believed that “low beings”, i.e., less complex organisms, would evolve at a slower rate than “high beings”, the more complex, multicellular organisms like the vertebrates. If evolution amounts to environmental adaptability, then this, too, is false. Unicellular, asexually-reproducing organisms can evolve practically before our very eyes. But the idea that evolution would yield speciation really does not apply to unicellular beings, as the demarcation line between species and mere varieties is whether fertile offspring might be produced by a coupling. Thus a lion and a tiger can mate, but the resulting ligers will generally be sterile. Unicellular “species” undergo mitosis to reproduce, and in the right conditions (e.g., a hospital’s door knob) do so quite rapidly. The rapidity of reproduction determines how quickly environmental adaptation, i.e., evolution via random genetic variation, can obtain. And the asexual nature of unicellular reproduction means any favorable mutations are stable and able to quickly overtake those organisms without them. So it is generally the case, depending on what exactly is meant by evolution, that the “low” beings evolve more quickly than the “high” beings, through higher reproductive rates, and greater genomic stability for chance variations that prove favorable. As low beings don’t mate with anything other than themselves, there is no clear demarcation for when adaptation yields a new species. Perhaps it is when they no longer succumb to the routine antibiotic regimen that a unicellular organism can truly be considered to have cleaved a new species.
Thus there is much to find fault with Darwin. He could not imagine the continental convulsions and plate tectonics that had a great hand, perhaps the greatest hand, in shaping the speciation of life on the planet. He attributed differences among humans to what could be considered racists precepts (but wouldn’t have been in his day). He imagined many ancestors for dogs when there is but one—the grey wolf. He believed the great variety he saw in higher organisms meant that lower organisms evolved more slowly. But these are trifles, details. Darwin got the principles right, even if the limits of knowledge in his time prevented their perfect application.
Darwin had every mind to dispelling theological myths about creation through his evolutionary theory. His final chapter, “Recapitulation and Conclusion”, amounts to an impassioned plea for the people of the world to let the scales of belief fall from their eyes so that they might see. Of believers in creationism (indeed, there were creationists in his day, just as there are today), he had this to say:
These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that in each supposed act of creation one or many individuals were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? And in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from their mother’s womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence.
The essence of what he understands to be true, and seeks to prove through reasoned examination of the evidence, shatters the creationist’s myths:
Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.
And his speculations, as he quickly discovered through Spencer, Huxley and others, will have applications far beyond the origin of species:
In the future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
And then, just a few sentences after having acknowledged that his theory applies just as well to mankind as to all the lower beasts, Darwin drops this bombshell:
Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity.
Given the implications of imagining that there is no eternity for the human race, at least not here on earth, it is little wonder Darwin that set off a theological conflagration whose embers still smolder and flare.
Alas, if there is no room in evolution theory for God or a Creator as such a being is currently imagined, then theologians and believers need to alter their ideas about God. Who’s to say the anthropomorphic God of Abraham is the correct one? Darwin ends by offering a way out of the conundrum:
There is grandeur in this view of life , with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Thus is explicated the template for constructing a modern view of God. Reconfigure God to fit the grandeur in this view of life, instead of trying to fit the evidence to the anthropomorphized God created in the image of man. The Judeo-Christian God, who claims omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, certainly can be imagined as the force behind the several powers of which Darwin speaks, if the human attributes he has collected through the years are discarded.
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was natural selection. By selecting for existential fitness, it has shaped, formed and molded every last thing, animate or inanimate, that has ever existed or will ever exist, bringing forth endless forms, most beautiful and wonderful. There is grandeur in this view of creation, and majesty in its idea of the Creator.