The Nature of Darwin and the Darwin of Nature
“Even the most ardent fan of Charles Darwin might be feeling weary as his anniversary year draws to a close,” remarked Clive Wynn in another issue of Nature celebrating his bicentennial.1 “Publishers have seemingly explored every corner of Darwin’s life: his youth, his marriage, his attitudes to slavery and religion.” And now Wynn was introducing another angle in his book review: Darwin’s “puppy love” for dogs. In a way, Emma Townshend’s entertaining new book Darwin’s Dogs: How Darwin’s Pets Helped Form a World-Changing Theory of Evolution provided Clive Wynn with a little relief from “Darwin Fatigue.” The Editors are not done celebrating, though. They just began a 4-part essay series on how Darwin’s ideas were received around the world.
The new essay series is the latest parade in a year-long celebration of “Darwin200”. The first essay, “Global Darwin: Eastern enchantment” by Marwa Elshakry (Columbia U) looks at the Asian response. “Scholars from Calcutta to Tokyo and Beijing constructed their own lineage for the theory of evolution by natural selection,” she said, “tracing it to older and more familiar schools of thought and claiming ownership of what they saw as the precursors to these ideas.” This became a theme around the world. Though many criticized the theory, many others took ownership of it readily. Among Confucians, for instance, the struggle between selfishness and selflessness was seen as an eternal struggle that is part of the cosmic order, and must be kept in balance. Some Hindus applied it to the whole cosmos: “the world unfolds as a result of a continual cycle between creation and dissolution: consciousness, self or spirit becomes realized in matter and then separated from it, and so on.”
Even some Muslim theologians joined the Darwin bandwagon: “Muslim writings from the tenth and eleventh centuries referred to a hierarchy of beings, from minerals to flora and fauna, and even argued that apes were lower forms of humans – more evidence for nineteenth-century Muslims that Darwin’s theory was ‘nothing new’.”
How could such diverse religious traditions find common ground in Darwin? The reasons are complex and somewhat counter-intuitive. Elshakry argued that “One of the driving forces behind many of these scholars’ work was a desire to push back against the forces of Western imperialism.” But wasn’t Darwin a European, you ask? Actually, envy may have been more weighty a cause than a desire for enlightenment:
In response, defenders of non-Western faiths drew attention to the greater rationality of their creeds to defend themselves against Western charges of backwardness and superstition. Many were keen to show that their traditions, unlike those of Western Europe, accepted, reinforced or had even anticipated the findings of modern science. By embracing Darwin’s ideas, they emphasized that Christianity alone was in conflict with science.
She gives an example:
Muhammad Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, for instance, was worried about the inroads that missionaries had made into the educational system of the Muslim Ottoman lands. He was also tired of critics pointing to Islam’s supposed inability to accommodate modern pedagogy and science. In Science and Civilization in Christianity and Islam (1902), Abduh argued that, in contrast to Christianity, Islam was free of the conflict with science that had so violently plagued Christian civilization in Europe. To stress this difference, he repeatedly wove references to Darwin and evolution into lectures on the exegesis of the Koran.
Politicians also used Darwin to push their reform initiatives. “Although many used Darwin to highlight the glory of their founding civilizations, they also co-opted his theory to explain their falling behind the Western world in modern times,” she said, and thus they “turned to evolution’s advocates for instruction while pushing key governmental reforms.” They turned Darwin into a father of “political evolution.” They warned their countrymen that they needed to catch up with the west, not by revolution, but with change of a “very gradual sort, mimicking the step-by-step slow change of natural selection.” In Tokyo, one leader also applied this to “ethical evolution” – “Just as through death the samurai was said to become the perfect winner, so the ultimate victor in the struggle for ethics was the martyr dying for the sake of something bigger.” That’s a twist.
This rationalizing created its own struggle. How could religious cultures get past the seeming futility of natural selection? Elshakry gave a Japanese and a Muslim example of this tension, this desire to embrace the modern-sounding ideas of Darwin, but leave some room for the human soul in a world of meaningless death: “mere survival was not enough to comprise a true ethics – evolutionary or otherwise,” she noted. “There had to be something beyond life to give life itself a purpose.” So they found ways to bring the yin and yang together.
Elshakry ended by noting that the conflicts with Christianity in the west were not so simple as often described. Many Christians accommodated Darwin’s views, and Darwin himself was not as hostile to religion as some of his modern advocates. We must avoid simplistic either-or depictions, in other words:
Then, as now, Darwin meant different things to different people. Globally, he was not so much a revolutionary or a scourge of faiths, as he was a revivifier of traditions. He straddled worlds between the moderns and the ancients, giving a new lease of life to ancient philosophers, ethical debates and even dynastic loyalties.
This subjectivity was not lost on the Editors of Nature. In their lead Editorial,3 they acknowledged the cultural lens through which different countries embraced Darwinian ideas. They even offered a few more examples of their own from England, Russia and Latin America – admitting that both communists and capitalists found opposite ways to justify their economic policies with Darwinism. Nevertheless, the Editors portrayed the scientists as the only ones understanding what Darwin really meant:
The public reception of scientific ideas depends largely on two factors: people’s ability to grasp factual information and the cultural lens through which that information is filtered. The former is what scientists tend to focus on when they give popular accounts of issues such as climate change. The assumption is that if they explain things very, very clearly, everyone will understand. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. The general public’s average capacity to weigh facts and numbers is notoriously poor � although there is encouraging evidence that probabilistic reasoning can be improved by targeted education early in life….
The lesson for today’s scientists and policy-makers is simple: they cannot assume that a public presented with ‘the facts’ will come to the same conclusion as themselves. They must take value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account and frame their arguments accordingly. Such approaches will be crucial in facing current global challenges, from recessions to pandemics and climate change. These issues will be perceived and dealt with differently by different nations � not because they misunderstand, but because their understanding is in part locally dependent.
By implication, the scientists are free of “value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps.” They must patronizingly “frame their arguments” for the unscientific masses. Elshakry rubber-stamped this depiction of bias-free scientists in her ending paragraph, but showed the solution: to make use of cultural traditions as a vehicle for persuasion:
In an age in which advocates of intelligent design battle to have evolution removed from classrooms, we would do well to recall how Darwin once captured and captivated the world – not by ridding it of the forces of enchantment, faith or even God, but by revitalizing traditions of belief and re-enchanting so many.
This leads to a disturbing possibility. Are scientists to act as an elite community knowingly “enchanting” the lower class of humanity (i.e., the “unscientific,” including, as she clearly implicates, the advocates of intelligent design) by captivating them with Darwinism framed according to their own traditions? How exactly she would do this with the likes of a Stephen Meyer or William Dembski, advocates of intelligent design with multiple PhDs in science and philosophy, was not stated. It would seem unlikely they would fall for such enchantments.
The Editors ended by encouraging the scientific community to express tolerance for the unscientific masses. They weren’t about to take science off the pedestal. They just asked for a little deference from the top. Surprisingly, they used a Darwin quote that could have yanked a thread to unravel his royal robes.
Darwin once said: “But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.” Researchers and policy-makers would do well to mimic his humility when presenting science, and remember how people’s minds truly work.
Nature said “people’s minds” – but Darwin was talking about his mind. A lot rides on the judgment whether his animal-evolved brain could produce convictions that “are of any value or at all trustworthy.”
1. Clive Wynn, “Darwin’s puppy love,” Nature 461, 1210-1211 (29 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/4611210a.
2. Marwa Elshakry, “Global Darwin: Eastern Enchantment,” Nature 461, 1200-1201 (29 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/4611200a.
3. Editorial, “Darwin and culture,” Nature 461, 1173-1174 (29 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/4611173b.
This is rich. The key to understanding these revelations is not to be scared of the Darwin Party thought police, who walk around on stilts above the rest of humanity. Yes, you have to dodge the nerf bullets about Darwinism being science, the tear gas about everything else being stupid (especially religion, especially Christianity). You have to overlook their crimes of lying about intelligent design advocates and their motives. You have to gently take the helmets off the scientists and the priestly robes off the Editors of Nature (they are mortal, you realize), and help them off their stilts, where you can look them in the eye as fellow fallible humans.
Those are prerequisites. Then everything comes clear: (1) Darwinism enchanted people rather than enlightening them; (2) It was non-scientific motivations that brought Darwin world-wide fame; (3) many embraced Darwinism because they were led to believe it made them look modern and progressive; (4) scientists are still simplistic positivists speaking in glittering generalities, and (5) the distinct possibility exists that the Darwinist scientists themselves comprise a population enchanted by Charlie, incorporating his ideas according to their political and educational agendas.
OK. Now, since they have graciously made a gesture of humble penitence to “remember how people’s minds truly work,” when they present science, let’s help them out. After all, they pointed to their Dear One himself as an example of humility. Let’s help them understand the culture of their Western critics – for example, intelligent design advocates. We only want to help them frame their arguments effectively. (We hope PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are listening.) This will give them their best opportunity to persuade their critics and silence the opposition (short of killing them in the name of survival of the fittest).
All they have to do is stop something and do something. They need to stop the angry rhetoric, name-calling, propaganda, and simplistic characterizations of anyone who disagrees with them as a religiously-motivated pseudoscientific nut. That kind of repentance may be the hardest thing they’ve ever tried. But assuming they succeed in purging their souls of unjustified hubris, the stage is set to begin a mutually-respectful, intelligent conversation between equals. Good. Now, they need to answer a question. Let’s ask the Editors of Nature, politely, “Thank you for quoting Mr. Darwin at the end of his life about those horrid doubts he was having. How do you decide if the convictions of your minds – all of your convictions, including the conviction that what you believe about Darwinism is true – if they are indeed developed from the lower animals, are of any value or are trustworthy?”
Expect a long, tense pause. Nailed ’em. Be nice, now, and don’t rub it in with that other Darwin quote.