Sunday, February 10, 2008

Darwin: What He Is and Isn't

It's not quite Darwin Day, the worldwide celebration of Charles Darwin's birthday on February 12, but every day is as good as any other to celebrate Charles Darwin's magnificent contributions to our understanding of nature.

Which brings me to the point I wish to make about Charles Darwin. Darwin is, of course, a cultural touchstone -- how one regards Charles Darwin, as a hero or as a villain, is an accurate predictor of where one falls along a number of familiar philosophical and political divides I feel no need to belabor here.

But I want to state, as clearly as I can, the Darwin-as-hero perspective on Darwin. Darwin was a great scientist. His theory of natural selection transformed the science of biology, answered and illuminated a great many questions, and fed countless lines of fruitful research that continue to this day.

The appreciation of Darwin the scientist has nothing to do with a veneration of Darwin the man. He is not a prophet or a saint. He is not a source of unimpeachable wisdom. Those of us who admire his work don't go running to his writings for guidance when faced with a difficult personal crisis. He may or may not have led an exemplary moral life. He is not a god. There is no church of Charles Darwin.

He got a great many things right in the tranformative science he did, but he got things wrong as well. The scientific theory he first laid down in On the Origin of Species has been refined and synthesized in the light of subsequent evidentiary findings and continuous scientific challenge (lots on this topic here), but the kernel of it remains intact.

There is every reason to expect that Darwin's theory will continue to mutate in this fashion, because that's how science operates. Where Darwin himself would come down on contemporary questions about evolutionary biology is of very marginal interest, if any at all, to working biologists; they are not worrying over 'heresies' vis-a-vis Darwin's views.

The evidence and the quality of the theory, not the man, is the source of authority. Anyone who suggests otherwise is almost certainly a lurker from the Darwin-as-villain camp.

[Update: lest you think I'm making a superfluous point about Darwin-the-man versus the science he developed, listen to this very lively and informative radio debate between scientist PZ Myers and creationist Geoffrey Simmons, and listen to Simmons' persistent efforts to divert the discussion to Charles Darwin per se. The underlying premise of much of his argument is that if he can undercut Darwin's personal authority -- by calling attention, for example, to Darwin's mistaken hypothesis that modern whales evolved from bear-like creatures -- he can score points against evolutionary science. Creationists wish to erect a straw-man argument in which Darwin replaces god, but this is just one of their many abuses of science.]

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