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by Ari Armstrong

The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on May 11, 2006.

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, an industrious man and friend of great scientists and inventors, nevertheless inspired a pejorative based on his name: "darwinizing," or speculating wildly. He earned this for his writings on evolution in the late 1700s, decades before Charles published On the Origin of Species.

Erasmus's Zoonomia is on display at the Darwin exhibit (which my wife and I recently visited) now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The book is open to a page in which Erasmus outlines his thesis and admits its speculative nature:

"From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo... would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time... all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality... and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?"

Erasmus was on the wrong track with respect to how species evolve. Like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, another early evolutionary speculator, Erasmus thought that animals somehow pass on traits altered by behavior. For example, goes the idea, giraffes develop long necks by stretching constantly for high-hanging food.

Charles Darwin published his work a few years before Gregor Mendel wrote about plant traits and decades before the discovery of DNA. Still, Darwin took the darwinizing out of evolutionary theory. On his five-year journey around the world, Darwin observed and collected many thousands of animals, plants and fossils that show both the diversity and similarity of life, surviving and extinct. He studied geological changes, which help drive evolution.

Darwin also understood the implications of Thomas Malthus's observation that when birth rates tend toward a geometric increase of population, limited food supplies create conditions of fierce competition for survival. This helps explain how species can evolve in a way other than behavioral changes.

Early in his career, Darwin wrote, "...science consists in grasping facts so that general laws can be drawn from them." His feat of induction, of drawing broad principles from dispersed observations across academic fields, rivals that of Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity.

And, like Newton's theory of gravity, Darwin's theory of evolution posed a fundamental challenge to religious beliefs that hold God to be an active participant in the world and daily lives of men. With the discovery of natural laws, God is relegated to a distant "first cause" -- at most.

The Darwin exhibit explicitly attacks creationism and intelligent design, arguing that they do "not offer a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution." The exhibit displays a biology textbook used by Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, along with a statement from the school board describing Darwin's theory as not being fact and suffering from gaps. Last year the courts ruled the statement unconstitutional for government-financed schools (see aclupa.org for details).

So now the critics of Darwin are the ones who are darwinizing, and worse -- manipulating the overwhelming evidence and distorting the very meaning of science in order to prop up particular religious views.

Yet, predictably, the exhibit is conciliatory toward religion. In a video "Scientists on Faith," available both at the exhibit and on the museum's web page (amnh.org), Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project says, "I'm also a believer in a personal God. I find the scientific worldview and the spiritual worldview to be entirely complementary." He complains that creationism tries to put "God in the gaps" of evolutionary theory. Once scientists answer residual questions, those who have put God "in a box" will "have potentially done great harm to people's faith."

Darwin himself originally intended to become a clergyman. He brought his Bible with him on his travels. Yet obviously Darwin's science has pushed against religion. The Christian web page "Answers in Genesis" fears that Darwin's theory "has made atheism intellectually respectable and changed the worldview of Western mankind from belief in the Creator God to the worship of humanistic hedonism..."

In an essay for the Ayn Rand Institute, Keith Lockitch indeed argues that all of religion should be thrown out with creationism. Against the worn canard that without God morality is impossible, he writes, "Rand locates absolute standards of right and wrong in the objective requirements of human life. In her view, morality arises from the fact that we, like all living beings, must pursue values in order to survive. Unlike the lower animals, however, we are not pre-programmed for survival. To define our values and guide our choices in life, we need a code of moral principles..."

Ethics, too, is coming under the province of science rather than religion.

Yet that does not imply a loss of spirituality in this world. Rand's hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, is an atheist as well as an architect. One character tells him, "You're a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark -- in your own way. I can see that in your buildings."

Darwin writes similarly about his work: "There is a grandeur in this view of life... From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

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