Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species

November 24, 2009, marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. What should we say about this most influential of books?

First of all, that it should be read, and not just celebrated. Wherever one stands in regard to Darwin or Darwinism, the Origin of Species is a classic text in the history of science, elegantly written and tightly argued. But that doesn’t mean that we should read it uncritically, and that brings me to emphasize several points that will no doubt be overlooked in the general jubilation on the Origin’s sesquicentennial.

To say that the Origin is a classic does not mean that it is original. Evolution is old hat. If you doubt that, read the Roman Epicurean philosopher Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), written a good half-century before the birth of Christ. Lucretius’ poetic masterpiece made a splash among the Enlightenment intelligentsia in the century before Darwin. Darwin’s own grandfather, the renowned physician, poet, philosopher Erasmus Darwin, was inspired by Lucretius, and wrote his own evolutionary tract, the Zoönomia, published at the close of the 18th century. It was an international success. Charles Darwin’s father, Robert, was also an evolutionist (or transmutationist, as it was then called). Evolution was a Darwin family affair.

When Charles Darwin went to Edinburgh to medical school in the fall of 1825, he was already famous as the grandson of the great Erasmus Darwin, the transmutationist. For this reason, he was sought out by another radical devotee of evolution, Robert Grant. Grant took him under his wing as a kind of research assistant, helping him ferret out evidence of evolution in polyps. Darwin also read the great French evolutionist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (who himself had been inspired by Erasmus Darwin’s Zoönomia).

All of this before Charles Darwin ever set off on the HMS Beagle at the end of 1831, the voyage around the world wherein (according to myth) Darwin “discovered” evolution. In fact, there were multiple evolutionary publications in the half-century before Darwin released his Origin, and he was pushed into publication himself only by the arrival on his desk in 1858 of Alfred Wallace’s crystal-clear explanation of evolution by natural selection. Thus, whatever merits we ascribe to the Origin, originality isn’t one of them, and whatever honors we lavish upon Darwin himself, the “discoverer of evolution” isn’t one of them.

We must also insist that the Origin of Species is one-half a classic. The other half is his Descent of Man, published in 1871, where Darwin spells out the radical implications of his theory of evolution for human beings. Darwin was a very careful man, and he’d made his name as a respected member of the Anglican-Tory scientific establishment. Almost since the moment he stepped of the HMS Beagle in late 1836 he was working out the details of a purely materialist understanding of human evolution, reducing mind to matter, eliminating any notion of an immaterial soul, cutting God out of the picture. But he was keenly aware that professing such complete materialism would get him branded as an atheist, and booted out of the scientific establishment. That was the kind of radical theory associated with gutter atheists of the French Revolution and social radicals fomenting rebellion from below in Britain in his own day. So he made a momentous strategic decision when he was pushed into airing his evolutionary views in the Origin: he would publish only one-half of his theory. That is why you found no mention of the evolution of man in the Origin of Species.

But no one was fooled by Darwin pretending he hadn’t really given it any thought. What prodded him into publishing the other half of his theory? His own dearest and most devoted supporters — the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, the great geologist Charles Lyell, and Alfred Wallace — all asserted that evolution through natural selection explained a lot, but it did not explain the development of man’s moral, intellectual, and religious capacities. Darwin was furious at their “betrayal,” and set out in his Descent to show that everything about human nature could be explained through random variation and natural selection (with a little sexual selection thrown in). Therein lies the great evil of Darwinism, which in our celebrations of the first half of his theory, we must not forget.

The Descent makes it absolutely clear that Darwin had no room for God. Other theories of evolution had been offered before, during, and after Darwin, theories that were not acidly secular. If Darwin’s anti-theistic account had not won the day — had not been taken up by the champions of secularism — the subsequent history of the west could have been much different. We might have a well-developed account of evolution that was friendly to religion, rather than hostile. Wallace would go on to offer such an account, and Darwin’s greatest rival, St. George Mivart would as well. Neither thought that evolution had to be set against God; indeed, they and others found that evolution was so magnificent that it was really an argument for the existence of God. But Darwin would have none of it. He was dead-set on providing a purely secular account.

The results of this decision in the Descent of Man were horrifying. For Darwin, the source of human morality had to be natural selection; that is, human morality, in all its variations, was merely one more effect of natural selection, and in fact, morality was reducible to natural selection. It should not surprise us, then, that the Descent is the founding text of the modern eugenics movement, and gives the blueprint for what has been dubbed “social Darwinism,” the strict application of the brutalities of his evolutionary theory to human social life. The attempt to substitute natural selection for God ended in making natural selection an all-consuming deity.

How? First, moral standards were swept away, regardless of Darwin’s feeble and confused efforts to save them. If morality is a merely one more effect of natural selection — along with the length of bird beaks, the peculiar habits of spiders, and the fur coloration of mammals — then it is entirely defined by what contributes to the survival of a particular creature or species population, and so changes under changing circumstances. Monogamy may be a benefit in some environments; polygamy in another. Careful protection of the young contributes to the survival of the tribe, but so may infanticide of the deformed. Mercy visited upon one’s own kin is fine, but long-term shortages in food may bring nature to “select” those tribes that destroy their elderly, sick, and imperfect, and cannibalize their enemies. Whatever works is good. Whatever.

Second, and related, once natural selection is elevated to a principle above morality by “science,” then the obvious implication is that human societies should imitate nature and destroy the “unfit.” What’s scientific must be rational, and what’s rational must be good. Hence, the eugenic frenzy that seized the imagination of many of the top scientist of Europe and America — not just Germany. And like it or not, Hitler is part of that legacy, as is Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood.

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