Why I Am Not Celebrating “Darwin Day”

Charles Robert Darwin, the great English naturalist and author of On the Origin of Species, was born on February 12, 1809. This, then, is his 202th anniversary. Many people will be celebrating what has come to be called “Darwin Day.” I will not be among them, and I doubt Charles Darwin would have been among them either.

I certainly would seem a prime prospect. The first paper I ever had published—one that was so bad I will tell you neither title nor location—was on the Darwinian revolution. Some years later, in 1979, I published what I am glad to say was a much better account in my The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. And since then I have written numerous articles and books on Darwin and his theory and its implications. In the fall, finally, a huge (400K words + 350 pictures) tome edited by me, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolution, will appear and, if nothing else, will undoubtedly upset the Darwin folk who are not included in the 65 contributors.

The reason why I am drawing back from Darwin Day is that it has become (and indeed was always intended) as a celebration of humanism and lack of religious belief, supposedly brought on by Darwin’s theory. It’s not so much about the science as about the religion.

Now let me say that these days, especially given the way that the Catholic bishops are behaving over birth control—in light of their cover up of the sex scandal, how dare they set themselves up as moral arbiters?—I am not very fond of religion. So that is not the reason for my pulling back.

Let me also say that I am not uncomfortable about Darwin Day because I think it is untrue to Darwin’s own religious beliefs. We know a lot about them. He started as a fairly conventional Anglican, even intending to become a priest. He moved on then to a kind of deism, God as unmoved mover (this meshed nicely with the Unitarianism of his mother’s and his wife’s family, the Wedgwoods). Increasingly he became uncomfortable with this mainly because he didn’t like the idea of a God who excluded non-believers and also because of the problem of evil. He nevertheless remained some kind of believer right through the writing of Origin, finally in late life becoming an agnostic (the term of his supporter Thomas Henry Huxley).

I am not uncomfortable because Darwin did not think his theory disproved God. Apart from the problem of evil (and Darwin certainly thought his theory exacerbated it), in the Descent of Man, even though he admitted this was no disproof, his naturalistic explanation of religion as a byproduct of other things—he even likened it to his dog getting excited by a parasol blowing in the wind—made it pretty clear that he thought religion a product of the immature or superstitious mind.

So why am I uncomfortable—and I think Darwin would join with me—with Darwin Day? Simply because I want to celebrate him for what he did, namely to give us one of the most powerful tools of insight ever into this world in which we live. The great Russian-born, American evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky used to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I amend that—and it is at the bottom of my emails—to: “Nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (At this point, I don’t care if you mean biological evolution or cultural evolution, or whatever.)

Whatever the implications, and I agree that many are there, I don’t want Darwin’s achievement caught up in America’s culture wars, to the extent that it is part of that and nothing else. I want to celebrate the human spirit and what we can do, rather than drag all down to the level of the rather disgusting display that we are seeing in the Republican race for the presidential nomination.

I want to celebrate a theory that tells us why the worker ants are always female and never male. I want to celebrate a theory that tells us why there are so many different little finches on the Galapagos and why they look like the birds of South America and not of Africa. I want to celebrate a theory that tells us why our DNA is in major respects identical to the DNA of the fruitfly and why nevertheless we humans don’t have wings and live just on bananas. I want to celebrate a theory that tells us why the Stegosaurus has those daft plates all down its back (they are for heat control). I want to celebrate a theory that tells us why sex selection in humans in places like India and China tends to favor boys over girls. I want a theory that tells you why, when you have VD, you might be randier than you were before. I want a theory that does all of these things and, like the goose, promises to go on laying golden eggs day after day, year after year.

It is that theory that Charles Darwin gave us in the Origin of Species, and it is for that reason that tonight I will be raising a glass of very good wine in his honor.

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