First off, it's an idiotic question. I saw the poll over on Think
Progress (39% “believe” 25% did not “believe” and 36% had no opinion
either way. One of the bloggers over there, nymed 5th Estate, wrote
“This kind of question irks me no end. How about 'are you satisfied that
evolution is the most satisfactory explanation thus far of the diversity
of species?' Or… 'do you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old and
that all dinosaurs were vegetarians and co-existed with humans and can
you explain why the dinosaurs then disappeared and when?' Or how about,
'do you believe that airplanes are supported in flight by angels and
that the engines are there just for show?”
Evolution isn't something you “believe” in. You can disbelieve if you
want – the Constitution upholds the right of anyone to be an idiot in
public – but “believing” in evolution is a bit like “believing” in the
theory of gravity. Nobody knows what a unit of gravity is. We don't know
how fast it moves, or indeed if it moves at all, if the speed of light
applies to it, or of any way to block it. All we can do is observe it,
describe it, and, based on those observations and descriptions, predict
The fact of the matter is that we understand evolution a whole lot
better than we understand gravity. And yet people who will look miffed
and tell you, “of course there's gravity!” don't “believe in evolution.”
The Gallup poll, framed in a stupid parlance, brought predictable
results. I prefer to think that the 36% who were described as having no
opinion pulled their heads back, glared at the pollster, and said
something like, “What sort of stupid question is that? You don't
'believe' in evolution!” I'm afraid, though, that a lot of them were
Olive Oyls, intellectual bankrupts who looked at one group that
discusses the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, and its effect on
present life, and another group that insists we call came from Fred
Flintstone. They just split the difference, and think Fred Flintstone, a
good Christian, survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary event.
A lot of people, including quite a few who “believe in” evolution, still
think Darwin said we were descended from monkeys. Back quite a few years
ago, I was debating a creationist on One Net who wrote, “I don't believe
we're related to apes any more than a bible is related to a
two-by-four.” I spent a few moments contemplating the nearly
once-in-a-lifetime setup line, and then explained our relationship to
apes, which is the same as a bible and a two-by-four; both of the two
share a common ancestor.
Charles Darwin turned 200 this week, on the same day that Lincoln did.
Both inadvertantly triggered massive change that caused western
societies to evolve. Both are revered, not because their views are
immediately relevant to today (Lincoln believed that slavery should be
permitted in the states where it already existed; Darwin had never heard
of chromosomes), but because their almost accidental presence at just
the right moment in history sparked massive change and revolutionized
I had a fifth grade teacher, a Mrs. McCurdy, who told us that her
grandfather had a powered flight in 1909 that went almost half a mile,
dwarfing the accomplishment of the Wright Brothers in America. It was
the first powered flight in the then-far-flung and mighty British
Empire. The following year, he flew from Nova Scotia to Florida, an
incredible achievement for the time. McCurdy's tragedy was that he did
it AFTER the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Darwin wasn't the first to
realize that species began, existed, died out, and other species sprung
up to replace them. Lincoln wasn't the first to realize that the nation
could not continue half slave and half free. Both just happened to be at
the intellectual, political and emotional nexus, and were there to be
part of history rather than on the outside peering in like the
unremembered Mr. McCurdy. Well, not totally unremembered; he oversaw the
Canadian aviation effort—no small thing—during World War II, and went on
to become Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.
At this juncture, Lincoln's legacy may be the stronger. Two hundred
years after he was born and 146 after he signed the Emancipation
Proclamation, a Black Man is president of the United States. For Darwin,
a full quarter of the population reject his theory, or a strange parody
of it called “Darwinism”, in favor of incoherent and contradictory tales
of humans being sculpted from dust by cosmic sky muffins.
But then there was a report today that a Professor Svante Paabo of the
Max Planck Institute had announced that they had a “first draft” mapping
of the genome of Neanderthals.
Darwin didn't know what a gene was. Or a chromosome. Let alone a genome.
He would have been stunned to learn that in the fairly recent past there
had been a race of hominids who spoke, walked erect, used tools,
fashioned jewelry, and had burial customs. Not human, but like us, and
perhaps our equals. They may have had religions, and considered their
inner voices and feeling to be their “soul”.
Darwin might have read Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” but he still would
be astonished at the possibility that one day humans might be able to
resurrect their long lost cousins by recreating their genetic code and
implanting it in an egg.
So in the end, Darwin's legacy, despite the whims of willful ignorance
on the part of the public, remains as solid as ever.
The theory of evolution has evolved. One can only imagine the sense of
awe and wonder Darwin would experience if presented with a modern high
school biology text. He might have a resigned smile for the little
outraged teacher in that high school who is angry that Adam and Eve
isn't taught alongside the theory of evolution, leaving the poor kids to
wonder how Fred Flintstone survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary event.
The duality of the universe is supposed to be good versus evil, and
never ask why one mighty being might choose to be good and the other
evil. But the duality in human nature is between reason and
irrationality, between understanding that fire is a chemical process
with heat and light as its by-products, and fire as a device to keep the
evil spirits at bay. It existed in Darwin's day, and surely he knew of
the persecution of Galileo for having the temerity to suggest that the
perfect celestial spheres were, like the moon, marred by mountains and
plains. Galileo, despite that persecution, took a surprisingly bright
view of the ability of the human mind to grasp reason. At various times,
he said, I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn
something from him.”; I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God
who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to
forgo their use.”; and All truths are easy to understand once they are
discovered; the point is to discover them.”
Darwin would have understood those statements; indeed, it's likely that
But Galileo also said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only
help him discover it in himself.”
Humans need to evolve a bit more before we are ready to discover those
things in ourselves presently blocked by abject superstition.
But Darwin has given us some signposts.