We've moved!

Check out our new site at
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reflections on Darwin

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Yesterday we celebrated the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, and this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his scientific classic, On the Origin of Species. During these 150 years, more pages have been penned on Darwin and his work than on most other scientists and theirs works: more perhaps than on Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, more certainly than on Leonhard Euler, Michel Faraday, or Heinrich Hertz, whose contributions have touched the core of science and altered the course of history no less.
The reason for this is that Darwin’s discovery touches our self-appraisal as beings in the universe far more profoundly than Jovian satellites, gravitation, or the curvature of cosmic space, and much more directly than differential equations, electromagnetic induction, or the transmission of electromagnetic waves. The only time such a jolt had occurred before was when the Copernican discovery summarily kicked our habitat from the prestigious center of the universe and transformed it into an insignificant speck in a vast and silent expanse. Darwin’s work removed us from the pedestal on which we were seen as the crowning jewel in God’s creation. In the view of some, it not only mercilessly reduced us to just another of the countless life forms that crowd the earth, but also revealed our lineage to be simian rather then saintly or, as one wit quipped, not so much the apex as the ex-ape of creation.
It is both biological and cultural to regard oneself as the center of the universe. The sun seems to rise and set from our perspective; we evaluate the world and react to changes with self-preservation as the bottom line. So it is not surprising that practically every religion gives a special place to humanity among the plethora of life forms. Other creatures, bereft of language and scale of values, have never protested this presumption in any biological court of law. Darwin’s suggestion that we were not molded by clay nor fashioned on the sixth day, nor did we come into being from the mind of God, as reported in religious mythopoeia, but that we just emerged as a result of slow changes over the eons, like so many other sister-species, not only contradicts assertions in sacred texts. It also seems to trivialize Homo sapiens and certainly appears to take away all sanctity from this special-to-God creature.
It is both understandable and legitimate, therefore, for traditionalists to resist the Darwinian view of anthropogenesis not only as an affront to human dignity but also as an assault on the religious framework. There are at least three ways of reacting to this predicament. One is to declare cold-bloodedly that the religions are dead wrong on this matter, as they are on many other issues pertaining to the phenomenal world. The other is to proclaim that the Scriptures are revelations by God and thus cannot, by definition, be wrong; it is Darwin who has been misled by appearances that hide the true essence of things, and his theory must therefore be rejected or, at best, be accepted as just another theory formulated by the finite human mind, which can never fathom the ultimate infinite mystery. The third alternative has been to find a reasonable via media by recognizing the role and relevance of religion as an important and meaningful cultural and spiritual experience, and by interpreting religious texts in symbolic and metaphorical rather than literal modes while maintaining the integrity of science and its methodology. The oft-mentioned warfare between science and religion is between the ardent protagonists of the first two schools, while members of the third group write books like, “How to be a good Christian/Hindu/Jew/Buddhist/Muslim and also believe in evolution.”
I am inclined to think that the first two groups, in their own divergent ways, have different perspectives of the truth because they view the matter through different lenses, but the third course is the best for a peaceful world in which science can flourish and religiously inclined people can also find fulfillment. This approach is difficult for those who see every aspect of the human condition in black-and-white terms. When taken to an extreme, this view inevitably leads to intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry.
But in situations like this, mutual concession may be the only way. The situation may seem quite simple in the framework of
rationaltry (worship of the goddess of reason alone) or unquestioning faith (where logic and facts of observation don’t carry much weight). But it is enormously complex in a context in which human intelligence, emotions, culture, sensibilities, and psychology all come into play.
Even with all the problems that have emerged, it is appropriate for enlightened humanity to pay homage to the name and memory of a scientific searcher who relentlessly pursued his quest and uncovered one of the great mysteries of the phenomenal world—namely, the emergence, continuance, and extinction of countless species with an incredible range of properties and propensities that adorn our planet (and of which we ourselves happen to be among the most remarkable). It is no less enriching to regard ourselves as one culminating endpoint in the complex web of terrestrial life that has been unleashed on the planet by the marvelous laws of nature, with potential for further change, than to imagine ourselves to be the most wonderful creation of the cosmic principle that many choose to worship as God.


Anonymous said...

I still believe in God, and the big bang, and Darwin. Man, and everything else just evolved from the microbes he created.

The Bible just has it wrong.