The sixth installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…
by: Arthur Hoyle
Part Six — Darwin and the Descent of Man — Evolution as a Godless Pseudo-Science
What transpired between the time of the oracles in ancient Greece and the Renaissance of Copernicus and Galileo were two major shifts in human consciousness. The first shift was marked by a change from a magical to a rational way of understanding the physical world. Men ceased marveling at the world and began studying it. Though a clear advance in mankind’s intellectual development, the change brought with it a psychological diminishment. Man was no longer a semi-divine being communicating with the gods who aided and guided him. He was more alone, left to his own devices.
The second shift, from the geocentric to the heliocentric view of the universe, aligned man’s consciousness more in tune with physical reality, but brought further diminishment of his identity. The Earth was no longer the center of the universe, the principal object of God’s plan. It was merely one of a seemingly infinite number of heavenly bodies moving through space not by God’s will but in obedience to inflexible physical laws governing matter. Man was also subject to these laws, his every step on the Earth evidence of them.
A third shift would occur with the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, put forward in the middle of the nineteenth century, two hundred years after the pronouncements of Galileo and Newton. This shift further shrank man’s sense of himself. He was no longer God’s chosen creature, the pinnacle of creation, destined for immortality because he possesses a soul. He was merely one stage in a long process of ongoing biological transformation, distinct from other living species, but with regard to his biological processes no different from them.
Each of these shifts in consciousness was met with stiff resistance from those clinging to older ways of thought, those whose certainties were upended. For each shift carried with it not only new modes of thought but also new arrangements in the social and political order that entailed transfers of power and authority. Those in possession of this power and authority were reluctant to surrender it, as the fossil fuel industry is now.
Darwin’s upbringing and education did not point him in the direction of becoming the author of a revolutionary theory about life on Earth. He was born in Shrewsbury, a small town in Shropshire, in 1809, into a religious family of free-thinkers and abolitionists. His father was a physician, his mother a Unitarian who died when Darwin was eight years old. He was raised in the Church of England. After schooling in Shrewsbury he briefly studied medicine at Edinburgh University before enrolling at Cambridge University to prepare for a career in the ministry.
The direction of his life changed when, in 1831, he was offered the position of companion to the captain of HMS Beagle, which was about to embark on a five-year voyage of scientific exploration. He became the voyage’s naturalist—going ashore, collecting specimens, and keeping extensive notes in his diary. Darwin brought with him on the voyage a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which argued that the fossil record indicates that the Earth is several hundred million years old, and could not have been created in six days sometime between 4,000 and 8,000 BC as the Bible claims. When the Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Darwin noticed physical differences among the same species living on different islands. He reasoned that if the Earth is undergoing a slow process of continual change over long periods of time, living species must also be undergoing change as they adapt to this changing environment. This realization was the beginning of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
On his return to England Darwin studied the methods of breeders who created artificial varieties of plants and animals, and concluded that the breeders were selecting for desired traits. He conjectured that a similar process might operate in nature and thus explain variation among species. Natural selection was the mechanism by which species adapted, changed, and survived—or didn’t.
Darwin was also influenced by the population theories of Thomas Malthus, who had argued in An Essay on the Principle of Population that population growth would always outpace the food supply, necessitating a struggle for survival. The best-adapted individuals would prevail in the struggle and reproduce, strengthening the species. Natural selection was thus an instrument of biological progress.
Darwin was reluctant to publish his theory because he realized the upheaval it would cause in both religious and scientific circles. The prevailing orthodoxy, upheld by both Protestants and Catholics, was that God had created each species separately, as recounted in Genesis, and that God had differentiated mankind from all other species by implanting in him an immortal soul that would continue to exist in an afterlife.
But Darwin was not the only scientist on the trail of evolutionary theory. When in 1858 the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace published a paper outlining a theory of evolution, Darwin rushed to complete and publish his twenty years of study as On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin did not use the word “evolution” in Origin, nor did he trace man’s path from an earlier species. In a continuation of the handmaiden tradition that had accommodated Aristotle, he presented his theory as an explanation of the natural law through which God worked. But commentators drew their own conclusions. If natural selection was the mechanism, and some species were discarded in the struggle for survival because they failed to adapt to change, then the entire process was random, and therefore not directed by an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful deity.
Twelve years later Darwin sawed off the other leg of creationist theory when he published The Descent of Man, which proposed that humans and other primates had evolved from a common ancestor. Man was not a special being favored by God and set apart from other animals with the endowment of an immortal soul. He was simply a more advanced form of animal life, subject to the same laws that governed all biological processes.
Darwin’s theory alarmed many theologians and religious believers because it called into question the need for God and replaced Him with purely mechanistic, deterministic forces. Religion, in Darwin’s view—for by then he had abandoned Christianity—was an institution man had created to strengthen the bonds of tribe and nation and so assist him in the struggle for survival. Science was once again shrinking long-cherished beliefs in man’s stature. Darwin’s evolutionary theory spawned a new scientific discipline, anthropology, that made religion a subject for study, reversing the old relationship between theology and natural philosophy.
When anthropologists and geneticists found evidence that supported Darwin’s theory, creationists who clung to the Bible’s account of the beginnings of life reacted. They resisted the idea that life on Earth was unfolding without teleological motive, and insisted that the Bible, being the word of God, could not err. Darwin’s theory, being speculative, was called “pseudo-science” and “a most gigantic hoax,” disparagements that we are presently hearing in the conversation about climate science.
Creationism found its staunchest supporters amongst conservative Protestant sects—Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Presbyterians in the rural American South—the same American demographic that is resisting the claims of climate science. In the second decade of the twentieth century Evangelicals published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals that asserted the veracity of the Biblical account of creation—that God had separately created all life forms sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Scientists such as the geologist Louis Agassiz pointed out that the fossil record did not show continuous progress. The fact of rock strata holding fossils was attributed to the flood described in Genesis.
The creationist backlash against evolutionary theory peaked in the US during the 1920s with the trial of John T. Scopes, a high school science teacher accused of teaching Darwin’s theory in violation of a Tennessee statute banning it. The parallel with the trial of Galileo hardly needs to be pointed out. The trial became a forum for national debate widely covered by the media when Clarence Darrow became Scopes’ defense attorney and William Jennings Bryan testified for the prosecution. Bryan believed that Darwinism was undermining religion and public morality, and that its “survival of the fittest” ethic sanctioned war, imperialism, and laissez-faire capitalism. He wanted the teaching of evolution to be banned in public schools across the country.
Although Darrow, in his questioning of Bryan, succeeded in exposing the ludicrousness of believing literally Biblical accounts of miracles, such as Jonah living for three days in the belly of a whale, Scopes was convicted and fined $100. The verdict was later overturned on a technicality, but Tennessee did not revoke the statute until 1967.
The trial did not end the debate between creationists and evolutionists. If anything, it hardened the polarity. The creationist movement received fresh impetus in the 1960s with the publication of The Genesis Flood, a bestseller that repeated the creationist argument for a young Earth. Even today, more than one third of Americans believe in the Bible’s account of the origins of life on earth. The creationist’s strategy of casting doubt on Darwin’s theory because it is speculative, and calling it “pseudo-science” and “a hoax,” has been adopted by skeptics of climate science, which presents dire and disturbing scenarios about the ecological consequences of modern man’s industrial civilization, and once again throws man’s future into doubt.
To Be Continued…
Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.