[Paleopsych] Newsweek: Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist

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Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist

[Arts and Letters Daily pointed to several articles on the evolution 
controversy. Here are most of them. Like the summary in The Week of the 
great man, this is also very good.]

He had planned to enter the ministry, but his discoveries on a fateful 
voyage 170 years ago shook his faith and changed our conception of the 
origins of life.

By Jerry Adler

Nov. 28, 2005 issue - On a December night in 1831, HMS Beagle, on a 
mission to chart the coast of South America, sailed from Plymouth, 
England, straight into the 21st century. Onboard was a 22-year-old amateur 
naturalist, Charles Darwin, the son of a prosperous country doctor, who 
was recruited for the voyage largely to provide company for the Beagle's 
aloof and moody captain, Robert FitzRoy. For the next five years, the 
little ship—just 90 feet long and eight yards wide—sailed up and down 
Argentina, through the treacherous Strait of Magellan and into the 
Pacific, before returning home by way of Australia and Cape Town. Toward 
the end of the voyage, the Beagle spent five weeks at the remote 
archipelago of the Galapagos, home to giant tortoises, black lizards and a 
notable array of finches. Here Darwin began to formulate some of the ideas 
about evolution that would appear, a quarter-century later, in "The Origin 
of Species," which from the day it was written to the present has been 
among the most influential books ever published. Of the revolutionary 
thinkers who have done the most to shape the intellectual history of the 
past century, two—Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx—are in eclipse today, and 
one—Albert Einstein—has been accepted into the canon of modern thought, 
even if most people still don't understand what he was thinking. Darwin 
alone remains unassimilated, provocative, even threatening to some—like 
Pat Robertson, who recently warned the citizenry of Dover, Pa., that they 
risked divine wrath for siding with Darwin in a dispute over high-school 
biology textbooks (click here for related story). Could God still be mad 
after all this time?

Unintentionally, but inescapably, that is the question raised by a 
compelling new show that opened Saturday at the American Museum of Natural 
History in New York. Here are the beetles Darwin collected fanatically, 
the fossils and ferns he studied obsessively, two live Galapagos tortoises 
like the ones he famously rode bareback, albeit these were hatched in the 
Milwaukee County Zoo. And here are the artifacts of his life: his tiny 
single-shot pistol, his magnifying glass and rock hammer—and the Bible 
that traveled around the world with him, a reminder that before his voyage 
he had been studying for the ministry. (Indeed, in a letter to his father, 
who opposed the trip, he listed all the latter's objections, starting with 
"disreputable to my character as a clergyman hereafter." Little did he 
imagine.) The show, which will travel to Boston, Chicago and Toronto 
before ending its tour in London in Darwin's bicentennial year of 2009, 
coincides by chance with the publication of two major Darwin anthologies 
as well as a novel by best-selling author John Darnton, "The Darwin 
Conspiracy," which playfully inverts history by portraying Darwin as a 
schemer who dispatched a rival into a volcano and stole the ideas that 
made him famous. Visitors to Britain will note that Darwin has replaced 
that other bearded Victorian icon, Charles Dickens, on the British 
10-pound note. "Even people who aren't comfortable with Darwin's ideas," 
says Niles Eldredge, the museum's curator of paleontology, "are fascinated 
by the man."

In part, the fascination with the man is being driven by his enemies, who 
say they're fighting "Darwinism," rather than evolution or natural 
selection. "It's a rhetorical device to make evolution seem like a kind of 
faith, like 'Maoism'," says Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, editor of one 
of the two Darwin anthologies just published. (James D. Watson, 
codiscoverer of DNA, edited the other, but both include the identical four 
books.) "Scientists," Wilson adds, "don't call it 'Darwinism'."

But the man is, in fact, fascinating. His own life exemplifies the painful 
journey from moral certainty to existential doubt that is the defining 
experience of modernity. He was an exuberant outdoorsman who embarked on 
one of the greatest adventures in history, but then never again left 
England. He lived for a few years in London before marrying his first 
cousin Emma, and moving to a country house where he spent the last 40 
years of his life, writing, researching and raising his 10 children, to 
whom he was extraordinarily devoted. Eldredge demonstrates, in his book 
accompanying the museum show, "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life," how 
the ideas in "The Origin of Species" took shape in Darwin's notebooks as 
far back as the 1830s. But he held off publishing until 1859, and then 
only because he learned that a younger scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, 
had come up with a similar theory. Darwin was afflicted throughout his 
later life by intestinal distress and heart palpitations, which kept him 
from working for more than a few hours at a time. There are two theories 
about this mysterious illness: a parasite he picked up in South America, 
or, as Eldredge believes, anxiety over where his intellectual journey was 
leading him, and the world. It appeared to many, including his own wife, 
that the destination was plainly hell. Emma, who had other plans for 
herself, was tormented to think they would spend eternity apart.

Darwin knew full well what he was up to; as early as 1844, he famously 
wrote to a friend that to publish his thoughts on evolution would be akin 
to "confessing a murder." To a society accustomed to searching for truth 
in the pages of the Bible, Darwin introduced the notion of evolution: that 
the lineages of living things change, diverge and go extinct over time, 
rather than appear suddenly in immutable form, as Genesis would have it. A 
corollary is that most of the species alive now are descended from one or 
at most a few original forms (about which he—like biologists even 
today—has little to say). By itself this was not a wholly radical idea; 
Darwin's own grandfather, the esteemed polymath Erasmus Darwin, had 
suggested a variation on that idea decades earlier. But Charles Darwin was 
the first to muster convincing evidence for it. He had the advantage that 
by his time geologists had concluded that the Earth was millions of years 
old (today we know it's around 4.5 billion); an Earth created on Bishop 
Ussher's Biblically calculated timetable in 4004 B.C. wouldn't provide the 
scope necessary to come up with all the kinds of beetles in the world, or 
even the ones Darwin himself collected. And Darwin had his notebooks and 
the trunkloads of specimens he had shipped back to England. In Argentina 
he unearthed the fossil skeleton of a glyptodont, an extinct armored 
mammal that resembled the common armadillos he enjoyed hunting. The 
armadillos made, he wrote, "a most excellent dish when roasted in [their] 
shell," although the portions were small. The glyptodont, by contrast, was 
close to the size of a hippopotamus. Was it just a coincidence that both 
species were found in the same place—or could the smaller living animal be 
descended from the extinct larger one?

But the crucial insights came from the islands of the Galapagos, populated 
by species that bore obvious similarities to animals found 600 miles away 
in South America—but differences as well, and smaller differences from one 
island to another. To Darwin's mind, the obvious explanation was that the 
islands had been colonized from the mainland by species that then evolved 
along diverging paths. He learned that it was possible to tell on which 
island a tortoise was born from its shell. Did God, the supreme 
intelligence, deign to design distinctive shell patterns for the tortoises 
of each island?

Darwin's greater, and more radical, achievement was to suggest a plausible 
mechanism for evolution. To a world taught to see the hand of God in every 
part of Nature, he suggested a different creative force altogether, an 
undirected, morally neutral process he called natural selection. Others 
characterized it as "survival of the fittest," although the phrase has 
taken on connotations of social and economic competition that Darwin never 
intended. But he was very much influenced by Thomas Malthus, and his idea 
that predators, disease and a finite food supply place a limit on 
populations that would otherwise multiply indefinitely. Animals are in a 
continuous struggle to survive and reproduce, and it was Darwin's insight 
that the winners, on average, must have some small advantage over those 
who fall behind. His crucial insight was that organisms which by chance 
are better adapt-ed to their environment—a faster wolf, or deer—have a 
better chance of surviving and passing those characteristics on to the 
next generation. (In modern terms, we would say pass on their genes, but 
Darwin wrote long before the mechanisms of heredity were understood.) Of 
course, it's not as simple as a one-dimensional contest to outrun the 
competition. If the climate changes, a heavier coat might represent the 
winning edge. For a certain species, intelligence has been a useful trait. 
Evolution is driven by the accumulation of many such small changes, 
culminating in the emergence of an entirely new species. "[F]rom the war 
of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are 
capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, 
directly follows," Darwin wrote.

And there was an even more troubling implication to his theory. To a 
species that believed it was made in the image of God, Darwin's great book 
addressed only this one cryptic sentence: "Much light will be thrown on 
the origin of man and his history." That would come 12 years later, in 
"The Descent of Man," which explicitly linked human beings to the rest of 
the animal kingdom by way of the apes. "Man may be excused for feeling 
some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the 
very summit of the organic scale," Darwin wrote, offering a small sop to 
human vanity before his devastating conclusion: "that man with all his 
noble qualities ... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of 
his lowly origin."

So it was apparent to many even in 1860—when the Anglican Bishop Samuel 
Wilberforce debated Darwin's defender Thomas Huxley at Oxford—that Darwin 
wasn't merely contradicting the literal Biblical account of a six-day 
creation, which many educated Englishmen of his time were willing to treat 
as allegory. His ideas, carried to their logical conclusion, appeared to 
undercut the very basis of Christianity, if not indeed all theistic 
religion. Was the entire panoply of life stretching back millions of years 
to its single-celled origins, with its innumerable extinctions and 
branchings, really just a prelude and backdrop to the events of the Bible? 
When did Homo sapiens, descended by a series of tiny changes in an 
unbroken line from earlier species of apes, develop a soul? The British 
biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken defender of Darwin and a 
nonbeliever, famously wrote that evolution "made it possible to be an 
intellectually fulfilled atheist." Although Darwin struggled with 
questions of faith his whole life, he ultimately described himself as an 
"Agnostic." But he reached that conclusion through a different, although 
well-traveled, route. William Howarth, an environmental historian who 
teaches a course at Princeton called "Darwin in Our Time," dates Darwin's 
doubts about Christianity to his encounters with slave-owning 
Christians—some of them no doubt citing Scripture as justification—which 
deeply offended Darwin, an ardent abolitionist. More generally, Darwin was 
troubled by theodicy, the problem of evil: how could a benevolent and 
omnipotent God permit so much suffering in the world he created? Believers 
argue that human suffering is ennobling, an agent of "moral improvement," 
Darwin acknowledged. But with his intimate knowledge of beetles, frogs, 
snakes and the rest of an omnivorous, amoral creation, Darwin wasn't 
buying it. Was God indifferent to "the suffering of millions of the lower 
animals throughout almost endless time"? In any case, it all changed for 
him after 1851. In that year Darwin's beloved eldest daughter, Annie, died 
at the age of 10—probably from tuberculosis—an instance of suffering that 
only led him down darker paths of despair.

A legend has grown up that Darwin experienced a deathbed conversion and 
repentance for his life's work, but his family has always denied it. He 
did, however, manage to pass through the needle's eye of Westminster 
Abbey, where he was entombed with honor in 1882.

So it's not surprising that, down to the present day, fundamentalist 
Christians have been suspicious of Darwin and his works—or that in the 
United States, where 80 percent of the population believe God created the 
universe, less than half believe in evolution. Some believers have managed 
to square the circle by mapping out separate realms for science and 
religion. "Science's proper role is to explore natural explanations for 
the material world," says the biologist Francis Collins, director of the 
Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian. "Science provides no 
answers to the question 'Why are we here, anyway?' That is the role of 
philosophy and theology." The late Stephen Jay Gould, a prolific writer on 
evolution and a religious agnostic, took the same approach. But, as 
Dawkins tirelessly observes, religion makes specific metaphysical claims 
that appear to conflict with those of evolution. Dealing with those 
requires some skill in Biblical interpretation. In mainstream Christian 
seminaries the dominant view, according to Holmes Rolston III, a 
philosopher at Colorado State University and author of "Genes, Genesis and 
God," is that the Biblical creation story is a poetic version of the 
scientific account, with vegetation and creatures of the sea and land 
emerging in the same basic order. In this interpretation, God gives his 
creation a degree of autonomy to develop on its own. Rolston points to 
Genesis 1:11, where God, after creating the heavens and the Earth, says, 
"Let the Earth put forth vegetation ..." "You needed a good architect at 
the big bang to get the universe set up right," he says. "But the account 
describes a God who opens up possibilities in which creatures are 
generated in an Earth that has these rich capacities."

Collins identifies the soul with the moral law, the uniquely human sense 
of right and wrong. "The story of Adam and Eve can thus be interpreted as 
the description of the moment at which this moral law entered the human 
species," he says. "Perhaps a certain threshold of brain development had 
to be reached before this became possible—but in my view the moral law 
itself defies a purely biological explanation."

The Darwin exhibit was conceived in 2002, when the current round of 
Darwin-bashing was still over the horizon, but just in those three years' 
time museum officials found they had to greatly expand their treatment of 
the controversy—in particular, the rise of "intelligent design" as an 
alternative to natural selection. ID posits a supernatural force behind 
the emergence of complex biological systems—such as the eye—composed of 
many interdependent parts. Although ID advocates have struggled to achieve 
scientific respectability, biologists overwhelmingly dismiss it as 
nonsense. Collins comments, in a video that is part of the museum show: 
"[ID] says, if there's some part of science that you can't understand, 
that must be where God is. Historically, that hasn't gone well. And if 
science does figure out [how the eye evolved]—and I believe it's very 
likely that science will ... then where is God?"

Where is God? it is the mournful chorus that has accompanied every new 
scientific paradigm over the last 500 years, ever since Copernicus 
declared him unnecessary to the task of getting the sun up into the sky 
each day. The church eventually reconciled itself to the reality of the 
solar system, which Darwin, perhaps intentionally, invoked in the stirring 
conclusion to the "Origin": "There is grandeur in this view of life ... 
that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of 
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most 
wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." For all his nets and guns 
and glasses, Darwin never found God; by the same token, the Bible has 
nothing to impart about the genetic relationships among the finches he did 
find. But it is human nature to seek both kinds of knowledge. Perhaps 
after a few more cycles of the planet, we will find a way to pursue them 
both in peace.

With Anne Underwood and William Lee Adams

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