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The Teflon Naturalist

Giving Darwin a Pass

Since its publication in 1859, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people have been killed in the name of ideologies that cited Darwin's Origin of Species as justification for their actions.

Yet, despite this bloody history, Darwinism, and especially Darwin himself, have benefited from a Teflon coating that would have made Ronald Reagan jealous. Darwinists have characterized any connection between Darwinism and these ideologies as aberrations and distortions. And they have been particularly keen to absolve Darwin himself of any responsibility.

But a recent article in the liberal religious journal Commonweal gives us ample reasons to question that absolution.

In it, writer Peter Quinn describes the attempt by Darwin's defenders to "[insulate Darwin] from any unpleasantries associated with his ideas or their consequences." Instead of presenting the historical Darwin, they create what Quinn calls this "gentle Darwin"—a "benevolent naturalist fighting against entrenched ignorance."

Thus, "Social Darwinism," which justified the oppression of the poor and the weak, is nearly always portrayed as an after-the-fact corruption of Darwin's thoughts. Yet, Darwin's own notebooks make it plain that "Darwinism was invented to explain human society." They anticipate Darwinism's influence on "competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality."

Then there's eugenics, the attempt to improve "human hereditary traits through direct intervention." The attempts to "improve the race" produced unimaginable human suffering: Mandatory sterilization laws in the United States left countless women unable to have children. And then there was Nazi Germany and its "racial hygiene" laws.

Nobody can deny the connection between eugenics and Darwinism—not only because its principles were derived from Darwin's work, but also because the father of eugenics, Francis Galton, was Darwin's cousin.

Yet, pointing out this connection is regarded as unfair and outrageous. We are told that Darwin was, in fact, one of the "greatest exponents and examples" of humanism. Far from being the worldview of bloody tyrants, Darwinism, we are told, is "humanism in flight" and "roomy enough for ordinary love to breathe in." Oh, my.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the real Charles Darwin, in the second edition of The Descent of Man, endorsed Galton's eugenic theories. He called them "remarkable" and labeled the higher birth rates among the poor "a most important obstacle in civilized countries."

To be fair, by all accounts, Charles Darwin was an honorable and kind man. But he also knew and even approved of some of the horrible uses to which his theories could be put. While that does not make him necessarily responsible for the Nazis, for example, it makes the whole "humanism in flight" notion laughable.

Ironically, one species of Darwinism was directly linked with care for the poor and the alleviation of suffering: that of Darwin's wife, Emma. Her "kindness was legendary." She fed the village poor, ministered to their sick, and even provided pensions for their elderly.

As Darwin's biographers put it, Emma "understood human suffering." Not surprisingly, Emma was "a practicing Christian" who remained "true to her Anglican faith." That's why, as Quinn says, "She was the one and true gentle Darwinian."

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From BreakPoint®, March 30, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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