Flashbacks August 2005

Defending Darwin

Articles from 1860 to the present on the conflict between evolution theory and religious fundamentalism

In recent months, a number of state school boards have battled over whether to add a variant of creationist theory known as "intelligent design" to their science curriculums. Intelligent design contends that the complexity of organic life cannot be explained without the intervention of a supernatural guiding force and argues that Charles Darwin's theory that contemporary species evolved from earlier ones is flawed.

The Atlantic has been commenting on the conflict between evolution theory and religious fundamentalism since Darwin first published his ground-breaking treatise in the nineteenth century. Almost immediately after the debut of The Origin of Species, Asa Gray reviewed the book in "Darwin on the Origin of Species" (July 1860). Gray, a botanist, was intrigued by Darwin's revolutionary new way of thinking about human origins, but given the major discoveries, advances, and upheavals then taking place in the world of science, he professed to be not altogether surprised by it:

Surely the scientific mind of an age which contemplates the solar system as evolved from a common, revolving, fluid mass,—which, through experimental research, has come to regard light, heat, electricity, magnetism, chemical affinity, and mechanical power as varieties or derivative and convertible forms of one force, ... and which speculates steadily in the direction of the ultimate unity of matter, of a sort of prototype or simple element ... the mind of such an age cannot be expected to let the old belief about species pass unquestioned.

Gray explained that he found Darwin's theory persuasive for several reasons: all species have some variation within them, similar species tend to be found in locations geographically proximate to one another, and new research was revealing the earth to be far older than the few thousand years previously believed.

Four years later, in July 1863, an anonymous author contributed a review of Sir Charles Lyell's book The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. The reviewer was open to Lyell's thesis that humans have a history stretching back 30,000 years, as evidenced by archaeological findings. Nevertheless, he was skeptical of Lyell's support for Darwin's theory of how humans had evolved:

We can see no more reason why a giraffe should have had a long neck, because he wished to crop the leaves of tall trees, than that mankind should have become winged, because in all times both children and men have wished to fly.

The reviewer's primary reservation was that Darwin's theory was unsupported by any known scientific principle. Scientists could not explain the appearance of those adaptations so critical to natural selection. Rather than reject natural selection, however, he encouraged further investigation; Darwin's theory should be a starting point, he suggested—an idea for scientists to continue to test and prod.

Some were far less accepting of Darwin's theory. Then, as now, many were affronted by the notion that humankind is simply a highly developed primate. In 1867, E. P. Whipple mocked such skeptics by penning a satirical objection to Darwin's theory—allegedly from the perspective of a narrow-minded reactionary named Mr. Solomon Hardhack. This rant, titled "Mr. Hardhack on the Derivation of Man from the Monkey" (March 1867), expressed indignation toward the prospect of taking man from "one step below the angels" to "one step above the monkey":

With a monkey in the background, how can even a Hapsburg or a Guelf put on airs of superiority? How must he hide his face in shame to think, that, as his line lengthens into an obscure antiquity, the foreheads of his house slope, and their jaws project; that he has literally been all his life aping aristocracy, instead of being the real thing; and that, when he has reached his true beginning, his only consolation must be found in the fact that his great skulking, hulking, gibbering baboon of an ancestor rejoices, like himself, in the possession of the "third lobe," "the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle," and "the hippocampus minor."

Stretching his feigned righteous anger to its limits, he wrote:

Do you tell me that this is a matter exclusively for anatomists and naturalists to decide? That's the most impudent pretension of all. Why, it's all the other way. Have I not a personal interest in the question greater than any possible interest I can have in the diabolical Jingo of scientific terms in which those fellows state the results of their investigations? Have I delegated to any College of Surgeons the privilege of chimpanzeeizing my ancestors? No, sir. Just look at it. Here are the members of the human race, going daily about their various avocations, entirely ignorant that any conspiracy is on foot to trick them out of their fatherhood in Adam. While they are thus engaged in getting an honest living, a baker's dozen of unauthorized miscreants assemble in a dissecting-room, manipulate a lot of skulls, and decide that the whole batch of us did not descend from a human being. I tell you the whole thing is an atrocious violation of the rights of man. It's unconstitutional, sir!

Science continued to advance rapidly in the decades that followed. Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking research into the inheritance of traits led to an understanding of chromosomal heredity, which, in the early twentieth century in turn led to the burgeoning new field of genetic science.

The Atlantic chronicled such changes, starting with John Burroughs' "In the Noon of Science" (September 1912). The new primacy of science, Burroughs wrote, was causing people to view the world more dispassionately and mechanically; cars, trains, and industry were increasingly cluttering the world with noise and distraction, and the insight afforded by laboratory science had reduced the animal world from companion beings to mere collections of cells and bones. But science, Burroughs contended, could also inspire:

It is only through science that we know we are on a planet, and are heavenly voyagers at all... Science enables us to understand our own ignorance and limitations, and so puts us at our ease amid the splendors and mysteries of creation. We fear and tremble less, but we marvel and enjoy more.

Evolution, he suggested, challenged people to let go of old beliefs and embrace those that reason, logic, and the scientific method were proving true. Despite the growing body of evidence to support it, however, many still found Darwin's theory difficult to accept because, he wrote, "there is no poetry or romance in it as there is in the Garden of Eden myth."

Presented by

Elizabeth Dougherty is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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