Rethinking Darwin’s Legacy

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The world recently (Nov 24, 2009) marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. But some are rethinking exactly what Darwin’s legacy should be:

Bicentennial celebrations have portrayed Darwin as a kindly old gentleman pottering around an English house and garden. What that misses is the way his ideas were abused in the 20th century and the way in which Darwin was wrong about certain key issues. He asserted that different races of mankind had traveled different distances along the evolutionary path — white Caucasians were at the top of the racial hierarchy, while black and brown people ranked below. [Racism] was a widespread prejudice in British society at the time, but he presented racial hierarchy as a matter of science. He also held that the poor were genetically second-rate — which inspired eugenics.

[…]The thinking behind eugenics is still present. Many senior geneticists point to a genetically engineered future. As the technology for this falls into place, there has also been an explosion of the field of evolutionary psychology that tries to describe every element of human behavior as genetically determined. What we will begin to see is scientists arguing for the use of genetics to breed out certain behavioral traits from humanity. [full story]

I think it’s a healthy reexamination of how we hold up one of the most genius, controversial, misunderstood and misapplied theories in human history.  There is no question that Darwin’s discovery as a whole was an eye-opening moment for us – even for those still skeptically considering it.  But this isn’t about whether or not different aspects of evolution are entirely true or not.  The question being asked here is how have Darwin’s theories actually contributed to the improvement of human life?  He is held up as a hero in so many circles, but is that because he so greatly contributed to the good of humanity or because so many mistakenly believe he has greatly contributed to a particularly materialistic world-view?  It’s hard not to believe it’s the latter.

Darwin’s theories have more often been abused for other ends than used effectively for the advancement of all human life or our understanding of truth.  The idea of Natural Selection and “Survival of the fittest” may be quite consistently found in nature.  But this discovery has been abused in order to further the widespread utilitarian and materialistic world view that our existence is basically meaningless.  And our ability – or usefulness – has been held up as our standard of value.  And in so valuing we also use it as a basis for discrimination.

We are already using science to discriminate against and devalue those with certain diseases and disabilities.  And by “discriminate against” I mean we kill them.  That way we aren’t burdened with them…I mean…that way they aren’t forced to live a life of trial and hardship. For example, 4 out of 5 babies (that’s 80%!) diagnosed with Down Syndrome in America are aborted!

And it’s not going to stop there.  Scientific advancements are showing more and more how genetically determined even our behavior is.  If a certain behavior is deemed (by who? I’m not sure) as unwanted, there will be pressure and legitimization to abort babies carrying the genes associated with those behaviors.  It’s politically correct, fashionably sensible eugenics.  Plain and simple.

Is this all because of Darwin?  No.  But Darwin is as popular as he is today because he’s the worshipped idol of those searching for Utopia in a meaningless and temperate world.

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Jeffrey L Miller November 30, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I wouldn’t call it Darwin’s discovery. Evolutionary theory was already well advanced before he ever took it up. I believe that it was his grandfather that already believed in evolution. Plus you can go back to St Augustine to see a theory of evolution advanced. But the topic of evolution was already part of the landscape long before Darwin entered the scene.

It was his search for an evolution without God that is what Darwinism mainly is. Darwinism and believing in evolution is not the same thing. He started out with a priori that there is not God and worked to advance a theory that backed it up. So to call a philosophical bias a discovery is not really correct.

Benjamin Wiker has a new book out called “The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin.” I haven’t read this yet though have read plenty of his other books. The Catholic Laboratory podcast interviewed Wiker on the book and the difference between the theory of evolution and Darwinism.

Matthew Warner November 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm

It’s my understanding that it was Darwin’s introduction of evidence of what he called “Natural Selection” that resulted in the theory of evolution becoming so widespread in the scientific community. Regardless of who came up with it first, Darwin is the poster child of evolution and natural selection because of his work and because of his utility for those adhering to a godless world – as reasonable or unreasonable as that may be.

And I don’t think Darwin totally rejected God. I’m sure he did reject a literal creationism – obviously. But I’m fairly certain that he recognized he had not reasoned away a need for God. I think that is what others that came after him did, taking his theories a number of steps past any credible evidence – hence, our modern day Darwinism (which I’m not sure Darwin himself would prescribe to at all…but there are lots of things people mean by Darwinism anymore).

I didn’t know about Wiker’s new book. I will definitely check it out! Thanks for sharing that, Jeff! I really enjoyed Wiker and Witt’s book “A Meaningful World” where they address similar subjects.

Andreas December 7, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Hi there…

First of all – I wonder if there is any field of science (or religion) that can’t be warped to serve evil ends. Nuclear energy provides warmth and electricity for millions, but can also kill millions. It’s the way you use it. The same goes for the Bible and all the atrocities that have been committed in its name. Does that make Christianity a bad thing? If not then the same should be true for the Darwin and the theory of evolution.

I think you are making quite a jump from Darwin to Euthanasia. The theory tries to explain what we see in the world – how species evolve. It does not give us a moral code on what to do with that knowledge. Evolution is neither good nor bad – it just is. “Survival of the fittest” is surely one of the quotes most often used out of context.

I think the decision of some parents to have an abortion if their kid would be born with crippling diseases or birth defects has not so much to do with Darwin than with the age-old wish to have a healthy child. I think that wish transcends biological reasons. I am not saying that it is the right reason to abort a fetus, I just think Darwin doesn’t have much to do with this.

Also think about the medical advancements that make it possible for kids with hereditary diseases to live a much longer and fulfilled life. Much of the understanding we have about genetic diseases comes from the groundwork Darwin laid with his work.

And just think about genocides (and judging by the Old Testament, God wasn’t all that against it, if the “right” people got exterminated – ask the Canaanites). That is killing people based on their race or tribe. This behavior is ancient – centuries before Darwin was born. So if you are against killing human beings based on their biological traits – I think you shouldn’t overlook God.

And finally: even if Darwin had been a liar, fraud and terrible human being – that doesn’t change a bit about his theory. It is still the most elegant and brilliant explanation for the origin of species.

Drew December 7, 2009 at 9:00 pm

It would be very hard to derive any kind of ethical system from Darwin’s theories. One either has deontological or non-deontological (eudaemonistic/utilitarian) options to choose from. Deontological ethics rule out derivation of an “ought” from an “is,” and deriving a teleological ethic from a theory whose explicit purpose was to divorce teleological reasoning from descriptions of natural processes (including human ones, which would include ethics), is patently absurd. I would therefore have to agree with Andreas above, and conclude that Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is morally neutral.

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