Darwin’s Birthday

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) at age 7. The paint...

Darwin at 7, via Wikipedia

Saturday is the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882). This day gives me an excuse to ramble on a little about Darwin in today’s world. Because of Darwin I ask different questions about a new plant or any living thing than I would have otherwise.

I ask: what is the advantage of this shape (or this color, this particular structure) to this organism? What is the advantage? Why did this trait survive? Did it help this species survive? Or was it simply neutral, of no disadvantage?

Before Darwin and Alfred Wallace – and if they had not lived and thought and written, someone else would have articulated those ideas – the questions were very different. Maybe: why did God choose this color for this flower? Or: how does this trait reveal God’s glory? These questions are still asked, but they are not the questions upon which experiments are based, as they once were (see, just for example, these notes on Johannes Kepler).

When I was young and attending a mainstream Protestant church, a conflict between evolution and faith was not even on the table. They were simply different ways of looking at the elephant. At some point many years later, when I was teaching an introductory course in environmental science, a student asked me: “Do you believe in evolution?” Believe in? When did evolution become a faith?

Then I started noticing the bitterness. The political battle. Evolutionists vs. the creationists. Both –ists. Name-calling. Finger-pointing. This was not science, neither was it spiritual practice. It was, and is, a simple mess.

Such conflict between science and religion is only one of the ways the two fields interact, but it gets the most publicity. Recently I learned of series of online interviews being published under the banner of “Evolutionary Christianity.” I listened to several of the interviews. Here were people who had thought through their perspective on science and religion and had found meaningful ways to integrate both in their outlook.

Darwin’s own religious views changed throughout his life. At the time he wrote On the Origin of Species, he saw God as the ultimate lawgiver, but by the end of his life he considered himself an agnostic (wikipedia). Just as Mendel’s work, and genetics, and the understanding of DNA came after Darwin’s time, so in Christianity did the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the cosmology of Brian Swimme come after Darwin’s time. It’s interesting to speculate whether, had he known of these thinkers, he would have felt compelled to describe himself as an agnostic.

It is my humble view that Darwin would be astonished and delighted at the direction the study of evolution has taken since his time. He might also be astonished and delighted at the direction the Christians who have integrated science into their faith have taken.

About Mary

I spent a few years at sea, and I never came back from a cruise without having learned something new about the ocean or what lived in it. After retiring to Panama, I began to learn something new about the tropical savanna ecosystem nearly every day I stepped outside. I focused on plants, those marvelous signs of life. Now I'm in my second retirement, living in Sicily. I'm leaving my plant studies online for those who have found them useful.
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