Single Greatest Idea Ever: On the 150th Anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species

Charles Darwin wrote in Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

But this article is not about that book, even though it is about that sentence. Rather, today marks the day, 150 years ago, that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, a book that revolutionized how we view the world.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an explanation of evolutionary processes is the foundation of all of modern biology. At its heart, the theory is elegantly simple: individual creatures with traits best suited to their environment are better able to survive and reproduce offspring.

And yet, it has been hailed as The Single Greatest Idea Ever: Darwin showed how the pieces of life’s amazing diversity fit together, and consequently, how we fit into that puzzle.

But, as Darwin clearly understood at the time of publication, Origin of Species would also challenge religious notions, not only of a 6,000-year-old world and a literal acceptance of Genesis, but about ideas of human exceptionalism.

Even though Darwin never raised the issue of human evolution in Origin (that would come 12 years later in his Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex), the underlying point was not lost on the public.

If man evolved from apes, how could we have been made in God’s image?

Evolution Rewritten

Religious fundamentalists have been fighting the notion ever since, despite the fact that the evidence for evolution has only grown stronger with scientific advances: DNA analysis, comparative anatomy, the fossil record, molecular biology.

Most recently, last week, former Growing Pains child actor and born-again Christian Kirk Cameron, along with evangelist Ray Comfort, led a crusade at college campuses around the United States and Canada, distributing free altered copies of Origin of Species.

Because Origin is in the public domain, Comfort was legally able to add to the book his own new 50-page introduction, in which he quotes from Mein Kampf in order to link Darwin to Adolf Hitler, accuses Darwin of being sexist, and argues falsely that there are no transitional fossils in the fossil record.

Next month marks the four-year anniversary of the decision of Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which Judge John E. Jones determined that intelligent design was merely religion masquerading as a scientific conceit and therefore unconstitutional to teach in the public schools.

Since then, evolution’s opponents have been struggling to redefine their message.

But the underlying point remains the same. As a woman distributing Comfort’s altered copies of Origin last week explained to CNN, it was important to her because evolution “impacts a person’s eternal destiny.”

Banana, Proof of God’s Existence

Comfort is a man whose best-known evolutionary criticism is the banana (or “the atheist’s nightmare,” as he calls it), which he says proves God’s existence because of its intelligently-designed appearance.

In an unintentionally funny video from 2006, he expounds on the brilliant design of the banana, as a most impressed Kirk Cameron looks on.

That Comfort is so lacking in imagination that he can’t perceive any reason for the banana’s appearance other than “God did it” is not so surprising.

But what is surprising is that Comfort doesn’t appear to have read Origin of Species, for if he had bothered to crack open the very book he was handing out, he might have become familiar with the relatively uncontroversial topic of selective breeding. 

In Chapter 1, “Variation Under Domestication,” Darwin spends 50 pages discussing the inheritance of favored traits. Down at the bottom of page 29, Comfort would have learned how it is that the modern banana is so well suited for human consumption:

Let us now briefly consider the steps by which domestic races have been produced, either from one or from several allied species. Some effect may be attributed to the direct and definite action of the external conditions of life, and some to habit; but he would be a bold man who would account by such agencies for the differences between a dray- and race-horse, a greyhound and bloodhound, a carrier and tumbler pigeon. One of the most remarkable features in our domesticated races is that we see in them adaptation, not indeed to the animal’s or plant’s own good, but man’s use or fancy…

We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them; indeed, in many cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said have made for himself useful breeds.

This is what creationists attacks have devolved to: A man best known for arguing that the cultivated banana is irrefutable proof of the existence of God because it fits comfortably in the human hand and comes with its own biodegradable packaging has the audacity to write an introduction to one of the most important books ever written.

Bending the Stories We Tell about Nature to Support a Larger Political Goal

But the utter ridiculousness of these tactics is not the whole story: Just as a sizable portion of the population continues to believe Obama was born in Kenya, about half of Americans continue to say they don’t accept the reality of evolution.

The big difference between the Kitzmiller trial and what we’e witnessing today is that the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (intelligent design’s chief champion) at least pretended it had developed a legitimate scientific theory—even though, to this day, there remains not one peer reviewed-scientific paper on the concept and no one has produced any research into its legitimacy.

Brown University cellular biologist Ken Miller writes in Only a Theory that at the heart of the intelligent design movement is an attempt to destroy respect for the scientific tradition in the United States:

The hidden message is that science is not different from any other political activity in which the opinions, prejudices, and viewpoints of the dominant groups are reinforced and maintained at every level. In other words, science isn’t science; it’s a way of bending the stories we tell about nature in order to support a larger political goal.

It’s going to take a lot more than scientific evidence, rational thought, and reasoned debate to get people to accept the very real fact that in the scientific community, there is no debate over whether evolution is real. Sadly, most of the fighting continues to take place in the United States, where our tradition of anti-intellectualism and history of religious fundamentalism provided fertile ground for the battle over religion versus science. (In a 2006 survey of Western nations, Turkey was the only country in which fewer people accepted evolution than in the United States.)

According to Ron Numbers’ The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, in the wake of the publishing of Origin, Christians in America were, for the most part, able to make peace with Darwin’s theory and evolutionary principles. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when a series of religious pamphlets, “The Fundamentals,” were published arguing for the acceptance of the Bible as literal truth that a widespread backlash to evolution was born.

Laws were passed in states across the country banning teaching in public schools the idea that humans descended from animals. Most famously, there was the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which the town of Dayton, Tennessee, defended the state’s anti-evolution Butler Act. The scientific evidence for evolution was never permitted to be presented in the courtroom. For decades, these kinds of anti-evolution statutes remained on the books, and teaching children about evolution was unheard of in large sections of the country.

But with the 1957 launch of Sputnik, the space race began and science became linked to American ingenuity and exceptionalism. For a while, being smart was in fashion. In response, the fight against the teaching of evolution embraced the idea that to oppose Darwin is a scholarly scientific pursuit, a quest for following the evidence wherever it will lead. Out of that grew intelligent design: the idea that if it looks designed, it is designed.

That is until intelligent design was exposed in Dover as a vacuous concept masquerading as scientific theory.

Now, it seems like we’re back to celebrating ignorance.

I Think.”

The new creationist/intelligent design strategy has been to pressure states and school districts to water down the teaching of evolution until it’s virtually meaningless, and to raise doubts in children’s minds about the validity of science.

As Don McLeroy, one of the members of the Texas Board of Education who led efforts to instill intelligent-design friendly language into his state science standards, said during hearings this spring, “Somebody has to stand up to the experts.”

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection arose from his worldwide journey on the HMS Beagle, particularly his time spent collecting wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, and the writings of population economist Thomas Malthus’ work An Essay on the Principle of Population.

A year after returning home from his journey in 1836, Darwin sketched a roughly-drawn evolutionary tree of life with the caption, “I think.” Unlike Comfort’s introduction, there are no arrogance in those words, “I think,” no overstated confidence. Only the cautious scribbling of a man sifting through the evidence, coming at it from a variety of disciplines, trying to put it all together.

Even though he had been working on the theory for decades, Darwin wasn’t spurred to publish until Alfred Russel Wallace wrote him with an essay outlining an almost identical theory of natural selection that the fellow naturalist had arrived at independently while collecting specimens in Indonesia and Malaysia.

For a beautiful account of man’s evolutionary history, and a glimpse into just how much scientists understand about our origins, in the past month, Nova aired on PBS the three-part series, Becoming Human.

Last week, Comfort was quoted in Charisma saying he doubts intelligent design will ever be taught in schools alongside evolution. “That’s because we have to remember who we are as Christians,” he said. “We’re the folks who believe in Adam and Eve [and] Noah’s Ark… and so in the name of science, they are going to resist as much as they can.”

We can only pray that they continue to do so.

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.