Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin at 200

Tomorrow is Darwin Day and also marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth.

The observance honors one of the greatest scientists in history, but it does not enshrine a deity or nominate an infallible authority. That said, honoring Darwin is not a politically or culturally neutral act. It involves taking notice of what his -- or rather the scientific outlook's -- cultural adversaries are not.

When something in the natural world appears to be consciously designed -- or if it's day of the week ending in Y -- Intelligent Design creationism declares "god did it" and begins a victory lap, but doesn't offer anything beyond this: no explanation of who this god is, no accounting of the methods and materials the god uses to achieve the observed results, no promise of a rich research program stemming from the foundational "god did it" insight, and so on.

Author Guy Harrison offers an analogy to clarify the shortcoming of the "god did it" assertion: suppose Darwin had condensed On the Origin of Species down to a single sentence, "Nature did it." While some might find that statement intuitively plausible or otherwise agreeable, no one would confuse it with an explanation, let alone a scientific one.

Those extra several hundred pages, together with the millions added by scientists after Darwin, rife as they are with detailed observations, fruitful inferences, and theoretical elaborations, are what distinguish evolution as science. Those pages remain missing from the creationism-ID program, such as it is, because there's nothing worth adding to "god did it."

Nor is that the only grounds for appreciating Darwin's work. He was also a superb prose stylist, even if florid and expansive by the standards of contemporary writing. Consider the following passage, ponder what it explains, and imagine trying to express it more clearly or economically:

Bronn also insists that distinct species never differ from each other in single characters, but in many parts; and he asks, how it always comes that many parts of the organisation should have been modified at the same time through variation and natural selection? But there is no necessity for supposing that all the parts of any being have been simultaneously modified. The most striking modifications, excellently adapted for some purpose, might, as was formerly remarked, be acquired by successive variations, if slight, first in one part and then in another; and as they would be transmitted all together, they would appear to us as if they had been simultaneously developed. The best answer, however, to the above objection is afforded by those domestic races which have been modified, chiefly through man's power of selection, for some special purpose. Look at the race and dray horse, or at the greyhound and mastiff. Their whole frames and even their mental characteristics have been modified; but if we could trace each step in the history of their transformation,—and the latter steps can be traced,—we should not see great and simultaneous changes, but first one part and then another slightly modified and improved. Even when selection has been applied by man to some one character alone,—of which our cultivated plants offer the best instances,—it will invariably be found that although this one part, whether it be the flower, fruit, or leaves, has been greatly changed, almost all the other parts have been slightly modified.
That's a fine bit of expository writing! And I think it's worth pausing over its antiquated style long enough to note, again, what this is not. It is not a bomb-throwing harangue. It is not glib, reductive, base, or dismissive. It carries neither the tone nor the form of a polemic on conventional thinking of the day, even though Darwin was keenly aware of the hostility his theory's substance would provoke in many circles. An eloquence that might otherwise be used to glorify god or Britain is turned to explaining a new understanding of life. The style helps dampen the shock of the ideas.

Then again, maybe Charles Darwin could not help but write so eloquently. He was, after all, not a saint.

Parts of this post are adapted from one one I wrote last September.

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