Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Charles Darwin and the Meaning of Life: Emergence and Inherency in Evolution

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Charles Darwin and the Meaning of Life: Emergence and Inherency in Evolution

Article excerpt


"I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one."--Charles Darwin, Origin of the Species 2nd Ed.

Yet shocking religious sensibilities was an understatement of the effect of the publication of Charles Darwin's famous treatise on biological evolution by means of natural selection and on the 150th anniversary year of the publication of On the Origin of the Species and the bicentennial year of Darwin's birth there seems to be no abatement in the controversy that so divided the world then and now. Over the last several years there has been an explosion of books and articles on the subject of religion and evolution culminating with the phenomenal success of Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" (Dawkins, R 2006) which has sold over a million copies since its release. With the passing of Stephen J. Gould in 2002, Dawkins stands alone as the most influential popularizer of evolutionary theory. From his first book on evolution, "The Selfish Gene," Dawkins has become famous by taking provocative stances that arouse controversy not only amongst the public but also in the field of evolutionary biology itself. Dawkins' engaging writing style and stage presence has made him the epicenter of this controversy. However, there are many other voices in this debate and publication of books by scientists and theologians of various persuasions on this subject has become almost a cottage industry.

The New Atheists

While prominent evolutionist like Dawkins, Gould and E.O. Wilson have been writing books directed at the public at large on evolution for decades, there seems to be a new more assertive stance among some popular writers to challenge directly the religious sensibilities of the public in ways that Darwin clearly demurred from. Darwinism has been transformed from a scientific theory to an ideology with a clear social and political agenda. Rather than dodging the implications of evolution for theology, this ideology has made atheism its central tenet. In addition to Dawkins, Christopher Hitchen's book "God is Not Great" (Hitchens, C 2007) and Sam Harris's missive, "A Letter to a Christian Nation" (Harris, S 2006) has also made the best seller list in recent years. Hitchens is not a scientist and makes a largely secular argument against religion that is in the tradition of atheist intellectuals from Bertrand Russell. While the arguments are hardly new there is a stridency that was largely lacking in the matter of fact style of Russell and the resignation of existential atheists like Camus. Sam Harris, a journalist who has recently taken up the study of neuroscience is perhaps the most antagonistic toward religion. According to Harris, religion isn't just mistaken but is really the source of most of the wars and conflicts that have plagued humanity over the centuries and continues to be the prime source of conflict in our age.

Darwinian Science vs. Darwinian Ideology

Darwinism as science has stood the rigorous tests of over one hundred years of scientific debate and experimentation. There has been modification of the theory especially in regard to inheritance and speciation and there continues to be modification in regard to the storage of information and the interaction of the genome with the environment but it has remained remarkably intact. While even the laws of physics have changed since Darwin first proposed his rather simple theory of change, the basic algorithm of evolution still astounds in its capacity to explain the unfolding details of the natural world. Religious conservatives who still cling to creationism often proclaim the status of Darwin's theory is uncertain but the simple fact is that there are few reputable biologists that question it. There is no field of biology that it hasn't shaped and biology as a modern science would be unthinkable without it. However, Darwinism as ideology has emerged largely unchallenged as the natural offspring of the science. …

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