Yesterday I ran the book sale at the Smithsburg Library. It was Pride Days, and Ashley was busy behind the desk, so it fell to me to take the money of people buying books over in the community room. It was a slow day, mostly, and I had a lot of time to read. I brought with me my copy of Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, which includes lengthy selections from the writings of Charles Darwin himself, as well as extensive contemporary and modern commentary on the theory of evolution and its effect on science. A bit of light reading, in other words.
Two passages jumped out at me. The first, below, is from “The Bases of Darwin’s Achievement,” a 1961 essay by Walter F. Cannon, who describes the conflict between religion and science as lucidly as anyone ever has:
[T]he Darwinian debates among the educated (for there are always obscurantists among scientists and in Christendom) are at bottom an argument as to whether or not to accept a secular version of a world described in Christian thought. The subsequent wrath of the Christians is not the wrath of those who have been beaten by an alien; it is wrath of those whose treasured possessions have been stolen from them. Stolen — and then fitted out with an active mechanism, natural selection, whose properties are quite difficult to picture as dependent on a beneficent Deity.
It’s not that the discovery and description of natural selection requires you to be an atheist. It’s that it renders God completely unnecessary and irrelevant to explaining the natural world. Faith in God is no longer compulsory. It’s optional. For the world’s religion, none of whom have the faintest evidence to support their supernatural claims, that freedom is an existential threat.
The second passage is by Darwin himself. It comes from the end of The Descent of Man, where Darwin is defending his theory against those who are unable or unwilling to admit that they share lineage with lower forms of life. The book’s next-to-last paragraph shows Darwin’s skill at answering objections by drawing analogies between his then-revolutionary ideas and commonly accepted principles. It reads:
The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind — such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs — as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.
What strikes me most about that passage isn’t the firmness of Darwin’s rebuke of the “I didn’t come from no monkey” crowd, but how much his description in the final lines of our savage human ancestors reminds me of the Israelites of the Old Testament. Why is it so many Christians are willing to claim the imaginary, blood-soaked inheritance of Moses and Abraham, but will protest to the last breath their kinship with far more innocent life forms?