Charles Darwin turned our world upside down. His theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most profound and far-reaching ideas in human history. It’s also, alas, one of the most controversial. Science now has the evidence that proves evolution is true. Yet today, incredibly, the opposition to Darwin is more fiercely vocal than ever – denying plain facts in more and more elaborate ways.
You haven’t seen it and I haven’t seen it, so please stop calling it science! If we had gone from slime to human beings, there’d be an overwhelming amount of evidence. You are a teacher of science, and you think that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?
The battles that I think really matter… We can’t get into the business of knocking down kids’ religions and the religions of families. Why not, actually? Because… ..and how the first man to understand evolution himself wrestled with religious faith.
For Darwin, the problem was close to home – his beloved wife was a devout Christian. Today, we have public battles as we confront the ranks of religious fundamentalists eager to attack Darwin’s great legacy, which they just don’t understand. When I was a young boy, I looked to God to explain life.
And then I was introduced to Darwin and evolution by my friend. At first, I didn’t get it. It didn’t seem possible to me that something so simple could explain so much. But then I learnt, thought about it a bit more and then suddenly the penny dropped. I really got it. This incredibly simple theory really was capable of explaining everything about life – the beauty, the complexity, the diversity. Then I thought, “Well, if science can explain something so apparently inexplicable as life, who knows what the limits might be on what science could explain more generally, without any recourse to the supernatural?”
At that moment, I became an atheist and I’ve never looked back. Charles Darwin too changed his mind about this biggest of questions. As a young man, during his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin still believed that God had created the world and everything in it. But then he came across more and more evidence that showed that life must have evolved. Fossil ancestors, patterns of anatomical resemblance, startling similarities in embryos and the power of domestic breeding all showed that life forms had changed over time.
Darwin believed there was an entirely natural explanation. All animals vary, and in the competition of nature, some variations are more successful and more likely to reproduce than others, passing their variation on.
Here in his study at Down House, Darwin grasped that the religious story of creation ran against the evidence of the natural world. With evolution, God just wasn’t part of the picture. But there was a problem for Darwin. His wife, Emma, was religious and the trouble began soon after they got married in 1839. Emma wrote him a letter describing her deep faith. But Darwin was no longer convinced there was a God. He agonised over the letter and scribbled on it, “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cried over this.” Darwin never criticised religion directly in public. I think he didn’t want to hurt his wife’s feelings. Instead, he let his science do the talking. He predicted science would bring about a gradual illumination of minds. Yet sadly today, it seems harder and harder for people to see the light.
Here, in the 21st century, people are retreating from reason, trying to turn back the clock to a world before Darwin. Genesis chapter one says everything that God made was very…? None of you think kill or be killed, survival of the fittest, nature red in tooth and claw is good. Is the world really 6,000 years old?
D’you realise, up till Noah’s day, people lived to be nearly a thousand? You don’t die because you get old, you die because you’re a sinner. Up till Noah’s day, there’s no record of rain. believes in the literal truth of the Bible’s creation story and attacks evolution on the very crudest level. I didn’t grow up brainwashed with this.
It’s the result of finishing my university course, listening to students say,
“If evolution is true, why can’t we see it happening?”
“It happens so slowly you wouldn’t expect to see it happening.”
All of a sudden I thought, “Hang on!” And that’s true. Good! In other words, what you don’t see happening is not science, it’s unobservable, and you were the first person to admit it on PBS.
You’re using the word “see” as meaning “see within one lifetime”. If a phenomenon takes millions of years, of course you won’t see it. Which means you have a faith position… It does not mean… ..and you need to admit it, as you weren’t there. It means you use other evidence than the evidence of one man’s eyes.
And you haven’t seen it and I haven’t seen it,
That’s ridiculous, but anyway… The refusal to believe in anything you can’t see yourself is absurd. Think about it. I never saw Napoleon with my own eyes, but that doesn’t mean Napoleon didn’t exist. I can’t see a cell or an atom or weather systems on the other side of the world. ‘Does that mean they don’t exist?’
Darwin didn’t just trust his own eyes. He checked his theory against evidence gathered through extensive correspondence with naturalists across the world. it seems to me, misunderstands science at a deep level. Science is precisely not limited by what we can see with our own eyes in one lifetime. ‘The whole wonderful endeavour of science ‘is to investigate phenomena beyond human experience, ‘from far-off galaxies to microscopic bacteria.’
Where the battle between faith and science really rages.’ Charles Darwin’s struggle with religion was private. evolution was taught in every classroom in America. But the religious fundamentalists hit back. ‘To defend their Bible against the biologists, ‘they developed creation science, ‘a bizarre fusion of scientific language and religious doctrine ‘that they touted as a real alternative to evolution.’ Our eyes are amazing little instruments. But they’re only one part of the wondrous body that God has given us. ‘I worry that this is brainwashing, not science.
There’s a massive amount of evidence. Go and look at some modern palaeontology labs, talk to some modern palaeontologists. Look at that evidence, it’s beautiful. The evidence for the transition between the reptilian jaw and the mammalian jaw. The reptilian jaw has several bones, the mammalian lower jaw has only one bone, and the other bones that were in the reptile have now moved into the inner ear. It’s a beautiful transition.
There are so many beautiful stories. You would be fascinated. ‘So, is there evidence for evolution or isn’t there? Let me show you.’ ‘I’ll begin with fossils. ‘There are now literally millions of fossils ‘in museums all over the world. ‘They’ve been dated and documented ‘and the relationships between them analysed. ‘When mapped out through time, ‘the anatomical connections can only be explained by evolution.
‘All life is related in a vast family tree.’ Fossils also show how life forms change over time along individual branches of the tree. But there’s even more convincing evidence. There is a code of four chemicals in every cell of every living thing – DNA. Today, machines like these can analyse and compare DNA with absolute precision. So Darwin’s theory can be tested. The results match the fossils. DNA links all life through the code and the more closely related two species are physically, the more similar their code. ‘This is just part of the mountain of evidence that supports evolution. ‘Some religious people just don’t know enough about it.
But some do. ‘And their strategy is even more bizarre. ‘They see God’s infallible hand in everything.’ Well, the evidence that we have is the same for both of us. Whereas you might see fossils as evidence for evolution I might say this is evidence for a worldwide flood. But you know, it’s not just fossils, The molecules of DNA, the molecules of protein, when you look at a mole and a rat and a kangaroo and a human and a monkey, they’re all hard molecules that you can see, just as you can in your chemistry teaching, and they fall on a perfect family tree. It all fits. It’s so elegant and you, as a scientist, would appreciate it, if only you could remove your blinkers and look at it as a scientist should.
This is a classic old chestnut – God is infallible, therefore the Bible is right. It’s as if I claimed Darwin was infallible so what he said was always right. Luckily, scientists don’t work that way. We sustain our ideas not through sacred texts, but through reason and evidence. And again, all I’m doing is bringing healthy debate into the science lesson. We have about a dozen different radioactive clocks and they all point to roughly the same answer, which is that the world is between four and five billion years old.
And when you say, “God told us,” you’re talking about a particular document for which there is no particular historical authenticity and you’re putting that above the whole of science and you are a science teacher. If there is a God, his word must be more important than the work of fallible human scientists. I’m all in favour of teaching children to think for themselves and to question for themselves. But there are limits to that and I think that when the evidence is so massive, you owe it to the children to teach them what the evidence is.
in fact the result of evolution’s arms race. Animals have evolved extraordinary adaptations to fit their environment, but they’re not perfect. Designers can go back to the drawing board. Evolution is condemned to modify what’s already there. So nature is full of compromises and imperfections.
Creationists also ask how something so apparently perfect as the eye just sprang into existence. Well, it didn’t. The basic chemistry that makes up a light-sensitive cell is shared right across the animal kingdom and natural selection has seized on this time and time again. Science has uncovered species at every stage in the evolution of the eye. It is a cumulative process and each step of the way is more useful than the one before. The eye has evolved independently at least 40 different times around the animal kingdom and it has evolved gradually, improvement on improvement.
Evidence of evolution. They’re shot through with history. Evolution is a fact. It’s documented by science to the same degree Napoleon is by history. Some things are just true, they’re not a matter of choice or opinion. But you’d never guess that in the place where this matters more than anywhere – in our schools, where the teaching of evolution has become a hugely sensitive issue for science teachers. How do we reconcile scientific truth with the deeply held convictions that bind religious communities?
Charles Darwin was the first person to grasp the extraordinary idea that life on Earth had evolved, without the intervention of any God. And I’ve always been intrigued by how he himself wrestled with what that meant for religion. Darwin was deeply worried about how religion spread, not through reason and evidence, but by being seeded in children’s minds at a young age at school.
He wrote that it would become “as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake”.
‘Obviously, what we believe is affected by our upbringing, ‘but that doesn’t mean we can’t change our minds. ‘We all have the right to see the evidence and re-evaluate our beliefs. ‘These science teachers shouldn’t be afraid ‘to spell out the scientific truth derived from evidence.’
‘You don’t believe that the Earth is round only if you’re an astronaut. ‘You don’t believe Napoleon existed only if you’re a historian. ‘You believe these things because they’re facts, proved by evidence. Evolution is also a demonstrated fact. ‘The truth really is out there. It’s not a matter of opinion.’
Relativism, the quaint notion that there are many truths all equally deserving of respect even if they contradict each other, is rife today. It sounds like a respectful gesture towards multiculturalism. Actually, it’s a pretentious cop-out. Gravity’s not a version of the truth, it is the truth. Anybody who doubts it is invited to jump out of a tenth-floor window. Evolution, too, is reality. You don’t decide whether to believe it or not believe it on the basis of whim or culture. The evidence supports it. Evolution is the plain truth.
Darwinism as a theory of how evolution works, a highly plausible, highly credible theory about biological history. I don’t have a problem with that. Do you see God as having any role in the evolutionary process? For me God is…is the power or the intelligence that shapes the whole of that process. As creator, God’s act is the beginning of all creation… By setting up the laws of physics in the first place, in which context evolution takes place. Things unfold within that.
‘Isn’t it trying to have its cake and eat it too? ‘Trying to have both God and the laws of science means that one or the other is compromised. ‘Either God can’t interfere and has no impact ‘or if he does get involved, it can’t be squared with science.’ You do believe in some of the New Testament miracles… I mean, such as the virgin birth… Any others? I mean, the raising of Lazarus?
The empty tomb and the raising of Lazarus, Now, isn’t there a kind of mismatch between your view of science as something that God doesn’t interfere in and that somehow he made it right in the first place? How do you reconcile that with what looked to some of us more like cheap conjuring tricks and not the sort of grand creator that you’ve been portraying?
I’m not sure what that means. It sounds awfully like suspending… It’s poetic language. I realise that there are ways of talking about that, but there comes a time when you worry people will misunderstand it as… Or that it’s a way of wriggling out of hard questions. Well, it’s one thing to say in some poetic way, it was sort of right that Jesus should have been born of a virgin… but when you say, “I actually believe it happened,” that’s a statement of fact, that’s a statement of scientific fact. It…it…it happened. It’s true or not
It’s true or not. I don’t think you can wriggle out of that by doing poetry, much as I love poetry. Someone who tend being religious without wants to detached by science trying to have both God and Darwin. And in a sense, they’re opening the door, letting in the rabid creationists by making it respectable to believe things on the basis of faith rather than evidence.
Now we’ve gone through the range of strategies by which religion tries to deal with Darwin. I think they all flounder. But even I can see why religion puts up this resistance. ‘I get letters from readers who have understood the truth of evolution,
‘Darwinism can be unsettling, even frightening.’ Darwin himself was shocked by what he called the low and horribly cruel behavior he observed in nature. And yet it was integral to natural selection. One piece of research shook Darwin to his core. He knew how some insects, like this parasitic wasp, lay eggs in the larvae of other insects so that their young, when hatched, can feed on them. they also sting each part of the prey’s nervous system so as to paralyse it but not kill it, to keep the meat fresh. So the victim may be aware of being slowly eaten away from inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it (http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawon_Pemangsa_Tarantula) How do we face this deeply disturbing truth?
Duck under a security blanket of faith in God? But then, Darwin wondered, what kind of God would create an animal that can only exist in this horrible way? Isn’t it better to embrace reality, bleak as it sometimes may be, than to avoid it and live a lie? In the teeth of life’s hardships, Darwin was determined to live authentically. He hadn’t just observed suffering as a scientist, he experienced it himself, in his own life.
There’s no doubt that people do find a Darwinian view of life bleak and unsympathetic, but it’s still true and we can’t get away from that. And further, in any case, there is a sort of happiness, there’s a sort of bliss in understanding the elegance with which the world’s put together and Darwinian natural selection is a supremely elegant idea. It really does make everything fall into place and make sense and I find great consolation, great happiness, in that level of understanding.
Just ponder for a moment Darwin’s central idea, the tree of all life, now verified as fact by our decoded DNA. It means we are related to every living thing on the planet. And, what’s more, we are descended from ancestors who were winners, adapting in any way possible to survive and pass on their genes. It means that every single living creature has inherited the genes of an unbroken line of successful ancestors. We have, all of us, inherited what it takes to survive and reproduce. That’s why we’re so good at what we do, why fish are so good at swimming, why birds are so good at flying, why aardvarks are so good at digging, why humans are so good at thinking.
Darwin wrote, “whether there are many other animals “which had played so important a part in the history of the world.” Darwin didn’t wallow in man-made notions of the supernatural or an afterlife.
We have souls, but they’re made of neurons and the little neurons individually are just blind little bio-robots, they don’t know, they don’t care, they’re just doing their jobs. The amazing thing is that if you put enough of them together in the right sort of teams, you have, basically, a soul. You have the…the control system and the memory of a being that can be held responsible, that can hold himself or herself responsible, that can look into the future.
And when people say, “Where do you get your consolation from?” What could be more wonderful than being part of this amazing and exploration and innovation, all happening in not a million, not a billion, but in a trillion places at once? The Just to look just at our planet, the exuberance of the life processes going on around us, all of the creativity that is there is…is just stunning. It’s great to wake up in the morning and realise you’re a part of this. And not only are we a part of it, but we can reflect on the fact that our ability to realise that, our ability to understand it and to exult in it is itself the product of the same process. Our brains that are so..so capable of appreciating this… have been produced by the very same process that we are now appreciating. Sometimes I like to say the planet has grown a nervous system and it’s us.
Charles Darwin died in 1882. “I’m not in the least afraid to die,” he whispered to his wife, Emma, in his last days.
‘I revere Charles Darwin. He made sense of life. ‘The world is amazing, even more amazing than Darwin knew and the more we discover, ‘the more petty our little private beliefs seem.’ ‘Does Darwinism leave a gaping hole where religion once was? ‘No. Rather it opens our minds to a world of majesty, the real magic all around us, ‘not based on uncertain faith, but sound science.’
We humans and the animals we can actually see are a tiny fraction of life on Earth. In the perspective of the universe, the vastness of the universe and of geological time, we are insignificant. Some people find that thought disturbing, even frightening. Like Darwin, I find the reality thrilling.