Field of Science

Why Darwin?

Charles Darwin turns 200 today. His birthday is the occasion for worldwide celebrations by scientists, and also a few protests by those who still dispute the theory of evolution. 150 years after this theory was published in "Origin of the Species," it remains the primary flashpoint of what some call a war between science and religion. I'd like to take this day to explore exactly why evolution has sparked such a passionate debate, and why even those of us who have no use for the concepts of creation or God might find value in considering the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory.

First, why is Darwin such a hero to the world of science? Before Darwin, biologists could only describe the "what" of nature. Evolutionary theory provided them with the tools to ask "why?" The whole nature of biological inquiry was changed. Beyond that, he showed how every living thing on Earth is connected by a common heritage. Evolutionary ideas have found application in almost every other area of science. An argument could be made that no other single idea has had such an impact on the history of science.

Secondly, why exactly is evolutionary theory so threatening to those who take the Bible literally? It's hardly the only scientific theory to contradict the literal truth of the Bible: scientists knew for decades before Darwin that the earth must be much older than 4000 years. The Big Bang theory has generated much less controversy than evolution, despite its obvious differences from the biblical creation story.

I think that the hidden thread underlying the evolution/creation debate is the question of meaning. Genesis doesn't just give a story for how the earth started, it gives humans a special place and purpose on the earth. It tells us that we are made in God's image, and that we are to fill the earth and be its stewards. Evolutionary theory upends this picture, saying instead that we are the product of a random process, following our genetic impulses, whose only purpose is to ensure the survival of our species.

Of course, it is not the role of science to provide meaning in people's lives. But I do think scientists should ackowledge the philosophical implications of their work, if for no other reason than that it significantly affects how that work is recieved. Having deflated the Judeo-Christian idea of meaning in life, can scientists, in their alternate roles as human beings, help provide an alternative?

My life partner is taking a class at Harvard Divinity School, taught by complex systems guru Stuart Kauffman and theologian Gordon Kaufman, exploring this very idea. Kauffman holds that notions of the "sacred", and even "God" itself, can and should be reclaimed without any reference to the supernatural, that the natural word itself can be our source of spirituality and meaning.

I won't say any more now about Kauffman's ideas because I haven't read his book yet. But I will over the course of the semester, and I'm sure I'll have much more to say about it soon.


  1. Unfortunately, the country hasn't quite caught up to Darwin... New poll results on his 200th birthday show that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution.

    6 out of 10 people don't believe in one of the most fundamental and important scientific discoveries in human history... I guess it does seem silly, I mean, really, from monkeys?!!?

  2. Wow, that is highly disappointing. I recall other studies saying that 40% of Amerians believe in creation--does that mean that there's an extra 20%that have their own theories? Or perhaps these are the people that can't make up their minds about anything.

    As for coming from monkeys, that may be true for you. Personally, I am a robot that was intelligently designed to look and behave exactly like a human would. Oh, and there are like infinite copies of me hidden somewhere in case I die.

  3. Happy birthday to Darwin and to Lincoln!


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