Tomorrow, Feb. 12, will be the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. By coincidence it is also Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, but the media hype I have seen has been reserved mostly for Darwin.
We are also instructed to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species—which appeared to the scandal of Biblical literalists in 1859, as well as to the opposition of various scientific critics using arguments that are still valid. But “survival of the fittest” was quickly accepted as “settled science” by the Victorian liberal establishment, as the one-stop explanation for all the incredible phenomena of creaturely life.
Unlike most of the celebrated figures in the history of science, Darwin was not a fox. He was a hedgehog. I refer to the ancient epigram of Archilochus, famously misunderstood by Isaiah Berlin. Archilochus actually said that “the fox has many tricks, and the hedgehog only one, but it’s a good one” (i.e. curl into a ball so the fox can’t get him).
Darwin was an honest, capable, plodding man. Alas, of his great hypothesis of “the origin of species, by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” it must be said that what was true in it was not original, and what was original was not true.
The basic notion of evolution—that all living creatures are related, and that man himself descends from the primordial slime as the product of purely material forces—is an ancient one, going back at least to Anaximander in the 6th century B.C. Likewise, the notion that creatures may be altered by selective breeding goes back as long as humans have bred animals.
Darwin’s contribution was the mechanism of natural (and later, sexual) selection. This mechanism was simultaneously proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace, a true genius who made many other signal observations and discoveries; but Darwin alone became obsessed with this one, and insisted that it could carry us beyond adaptation within a species, across natural barriers to the creation of entirely new forms, over eons of time. Wallace was not so sure, and to this day, Darwin’s notion exists merely as a surmise. It has never been proven.
Which is its great strength. For what cannot be proven can never be disproven, either. The Darwinian account is merely belied by the fossil record, which has provided none of the inter-species “missing links” that Darwin anticipated, and which instead yields only sudden radical changes.
As Darwin himself realized, the fossil stratum corresponding to the beginning of the Cambrian geological period was potentially inimical to his hypothesis. In a blink of geological time, now dated by various means to 542 million years ago, all of the advanced body types of “modern” multicellular organisms suddenly and simultaneously appear. The event is now known as the “Cambrian Explosion,” and Darwin hoped it would be explained away by the later discovery of gradual evolutionary developments through the eons before. Instead, the shock of the transition has been enhanced by all subsequent study.
Likewise, Darwin trusted that the gradual development of such “irreducibly complex” organs as the eye, ear, and heart would be explained in due course (i.e. these organs can’t work at all unless and until all their many parts are present and functioning in perfect harmony). Instead, advances in genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry over the last half-century have revealed a vast world of irreducible complexities within the single living cell, by comparison to which the engineering of an eye would be child’s play.
The man himself was very much a product of his age: a bourgeois Victorian adapted to an intellectual environment in which such fatuities as Utilitarianism and Malthusianism were in the air. In retrospect, he is a redundant character, for not only Wallace did, but many others could equally well have drudged out Darwin’s specific points.
But “Darwinism” survives, especially in the English-speaking world, not as a quaint historical theory, but rather as a cosmological doctrine. The hard-core Darwinist is a “religious atheist,” whose faith in the non-existence of God is anchored in the unshakeable conviction that everything in this world that looks designed and purposeful will eventually be explained by random, gradual, purely “natural” (as opposed to supernatural) processes. And he defends himself by the method of the hedgehog: for when attacked he rolls up into an impregnably tautological ball.
So, Darwin Day is tomorrow. But today, Feb. 11th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Over the 151 years since the apparitions of Mary to the devout little peasant girl, Bernadette Soubiros, countless millions have visited that remote shrine, and the medical bureau that was established to test claims of miraculous cures has identified many cases beyond human explanation. In other words, there is far more empirical evidence of the miracle at Lourdes than there has ever been, or can ever be, of Darwinism.