The Explainer: Darwin Day

That was one of those introductory scenes from the Simpson’s, in this case a tongue-in-cheek look at Homer Simpson’s evolution.

Tonight we’re paying tribute to Charles Darwin, his ideas and the scientific revolution he inspired. We’ll also be looking at why it is, that people of faith have been clashing with scientists over Darwin’s ideas, in the 150 years that have passed since his “Origin of Species” was first published.

I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.


I. Darwin and Damnation


OK let’s begin with the common misconception that we evolved from apes. What evolution really means and as Charles Darwin and others argued, was that we most probably shared a common ancestor with apes, that somewhere along the line, the branches forked and on one hand, the various apes and monkeys evolved along their paths, while our species evolved along another.

It’s been 200 years since Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, and the bicentennial of his birth was marked with great festivity in the scientific world. Here at home, the sciences are less prominent, and so, Darwin’s bicentennial has been less noticeable as an event, except perhaps within our pretty small scientific community.

In 1831, then a young man, Darwin embarked on a voyage on the HMS Beagle.

Lasting nearly five years, the trip most famously included his observations on the Galapagos Islands, and his looking into the variations among similar species, such as tortoises and finches.

His travelogue of his trip became a bestseller. Meanwhile, his mind was digesting the observation’s he’d made, and the observations and thoughts of other scientists.

Here, reproduced by The Curated Obect website, is a page from one of his notebooks from sometime in the middle of July, 1837.

It shows a tree, and graphically represents what would come to be his exploration of the “transmutation of species,” or what we more familiarly know as evolution.

Above the tree, he wrote, “I think.” Seldom has a lightbulb moment been so wonderfully preserved for posterity.

He arrived at his theory of natural selection in 1838, but it wasn’t until 1858, or twenty years later, when he finally decided to publish his ideas.

In 1859, “On The Origin of Species” came out.

The BBC documentary, “Darwin’s Struggle: The Evolution of the Origin of Species,” gives a wonderful account of the genesis and incubation of Darwin’s ideas.

This brings us to how, on one hand, Darwin’s ideas have had a profound influence on biology and the other sciences, and on the other hand, have triggered hostility from religious quarters.

Consider this man, a monk, Gregor Mendel and his contribution to genetics.

I’m sure you remember drawing something like this, which we happened to borrow from Wikipedia.

It’s called a Punnet Square, and in this case it shows that if you have two small y chromosomes and you’re a banana, you’ll be green, but if you have a big Y and a small y chromosome you’ll be a yellow banana –and what happens when you cross yellow with green bananas, about half will be yellow.

In another Wikpedia image you can see how this process can be used to predict the outcomes of more complicated cross-breedings.

But the essential point of Mendel’s findings and the combination of all the other findings of scientists like Darwin, in all sorts of spheres of scientific inquiry, are, broadly, the following.

First, that the world is far older than the Bible represents it.

Second, the creatures that inhabit the earth evolved from other creatures, and that this process of natural selection was essentially random, and therefore, cannot be said, scientifically, at least, to have come about because of some neat, central design or plan.

Third, that humans are animals like any other; that they didn’t just materialize as we know humankind today, but evolved from other creatures.

This raises the question, then, that if the evolved, how can they be said to be in the image of God or been created in an instant?

This, some Anglican churchmen said at the time, was pure and simple heresy.

And so, Darwin’s wife, Emma Wedgwood, who, by all accounts loved her husband dearly, and nursed him through all the strange illnesses, that plagued him after his Beagle voyage, was haunted by a particular fear.

That particular fear was that as she observed churchmen react with hostility to her husband, and as she witnessed her husband abandoning his faith, describing himself eventually as an agnostic, that she and her husband would never be reunited in Heaven after he died.

In her case, she stuck by her husband, loved him deeply as he loved her, and both were model parents regardless of their individual faith.

But that was the Darwin family; for others, the clash between faith and science has been ferocious and continues to be so, which we’ll explore further when we return.


II. Nonoverlapping Magisteria


That was a scene from Inherit the Wind, the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The play was a fictionalized account of a real trial that took place in 1925.

The state of Tennessee had outlawed the teaching of evolution. A science teacher, John T. Scopes, defied the law, teaching Darwinism to his high school science class. Charges were filed.

In the courtroom, Clarence Darrow, clashed with this man, William Jennings Bryan, whom we’ve met before in other episodes, as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, who opposed the conquest of the Philippines.

Anyway, in that courtroom, Bryan prosecuted on behalf of the state’s hostility to Darwinism, while Darrow defended science and the teacher. Here’s another scene from the play and the film by the same name:

The end result was that the teacher lost, but in winning a battle, religious fundamentalists ended up losing the war for public opinion.

In much the same way, by the time he died in 1882, such was Darwin’s reputation that he was given a state funeral by the British government, even though in 1859 churchmen had responded to his ideas with horror.

Can Faith and Science be reconciled? Using Darwin and his ideas as an example, it’s interesting to see some responses.

As we saw with the Scopes Trial, the response of some fundamentalist Christians has been to oppose Darwinism as contrary to a literal reading of the Bible.

More recently, other fundamentalist Christians have tried to fight science with their own interpretation of things scientists have found, like fossils, by proposing something they call “Intelligent Design.” And instead of banning Darwin outright, fundamentalists have modified their campaigns to insist on equal time for their theory.

This has been mocked by some scientists and advocates of Darwin, who launched a campaign to then require school boards, if they’d teach intelligent design, to teach about The Great Spaghetti Monster, too.


Other religious groups have attempted a more nuanced position. For example, the Catholic Church’s views have evolved.

In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII said Evolution per se could be studied, so long as it was seen as only a theory, and not a proven fact.

By the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and the present Pope, Benedict XVI, who sponsored a recent Vatican summit between churchmen and scientists to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” Catholic clergy could make statements like this:


What about scientists?

One exponent of Darwin, the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould, argued they could.

I never tire of asking people to read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria”, in which he argues religion and science deal with things that are really separate departments in our lives:

(The) magisterium…of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old clichés, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.

An interesting critique of this, from the point of view of those interested in actually reconciling science with religion, is in “A Separate Peace: Stephen Jay Gould and the Limits of Tolerance”.


In it, Michael Ruse, by way of Ian Barbour, says there are three broad categories in the science-religion divide:

1. First, there are those who think that science and religion are ever at war. So the Darwinist Richard Dawkins and numerous fundamentalist Christians are perennial antagonists.

2. In the second camp are those who think that science and religion speak entirely different languages, and therefore they cannot come into conflict. This is where Gould situated himself.

3. in the third category … we find those who think that even though science and religion do not necessarily speak the same language, they have overlapping domains of interest, and these respective interests and claims can in some sense be reconciled.

So let me ask you. In which category to do you fall?

And finally, let me quote Frank Cottrell Boyce, scriptwriter of a TV movie, “God on Trial.” Boyce is a practicing Catholic and wrote that reading the Bible actually challenged his faith more than reading Darwin:

I thought my faith was invulnerable. I’ve been through family illness. I’ve witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise – for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist. The first real challenge to my faith came from reading the scriptures. It may seem deliciously ironic to you, but for me it was a time of a permanent headache and no sleep.

When we return, Darwinism and the 21st Century. A discussion.


My view


The question of science and religion matters though, when religion is put forward as a problem in society, and therefore, politics, and when politics, it’s proposed, should be approached in a more scientific manner. Both represent dangerous situations.

Both science and religion, for example, have been used to promote the persecution of minorities; the solution to the dangers posed by both is a pluralistic, secular, but not atheistic, political order of some sort.

It would be wrong to demand of someone that they commit one of the ultimate crimes in religion -apostasy- in the name of science; it would be equally wrong to let science run rampant without ethics; but it would be wrong to confuse ethics with religious morality. Such a puzzlement! Hence my view that these are achieved only by trial-and-error and evolution, and not by attempts at social engineering -which all political revolutions are.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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