Darwin’s firestorm of controversy
Born on the very same day as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin had an enormous effect on the scientific world. In 1859, after 25 years of observation, study, critical analysis, and cautious deliberation, he published his earth-shaking treatise, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which provided the first truly scientific explanation for the development of the diversity of living creatures inhabiting the earth. There were others before him, including Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, German philosopher Leibnitz, French naturalist Buffon, and also Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmas Darwin; and especially French naturalist Jean Lamarck just before Darwin, who had offered hypotheses regarding the mutability of species as a result of causal factors such as environment.
But it was Charles Darwin who presented a clearly documented foundation which elevated evolution from a hypothesis to a theory based on observed facts. Having studied for the ministry as a young man, he realized his thesis, which challenged the prevailing doctrine of special creation would create a firestorm of controversy. That is the reason he spent 25 years carefully analyzing his data and conclusions before publishing his work.
The cause for his concern was his theory of evolution was in total disagreement with the doctrine of special creation, which was based on the Book of Genesis. The Old Testament, as a book of faith, is many things. It sets forth in beautiful prose and poetry a canon of law and a moral code which are the foundation of a civil society, and recounts the history of the Hebrew people, which according to biblical scholars, had undoubtedly committed to a formal document. In its attempts to explain the origins of the earth and the creatures inhabiting it, including humans, it presents a mythological story of creation which should not be mistaken for a scientific text. Nearly all prescientific religions and societies have created moral codes to guide conduct, and with absolutely no understanding of the massive size of the universe or its prodigious age, and no scientific knowledge to guide them, became highly creative in attempting to explain how the world came about and how they originated. Sound moral principles are universal and timeless in their applicability, but myths of creation must give way to discoveries which provide a scientific foundation disproving myths which cannot stand the test of the modern scientific method, which require that to be valid, theories must be supported by verifiable facts. For example, in I Kings, the value of pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) is given as 3; we have since learned that although this is a rough approximation, the true value of pi is 3.14159 … We also know discoveries during the Renaissance disproved the religiously-held belief the earth is the center of the universe and everything in the sky revolves around it.
Although vigorously debated in scientific circles ever since it first came out 150 years ago, Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution” has stood the test of time, and has been substantiated and advanced during that time by fossil discoveries; and particularly by the discovery and study of the DNA structure, which, by means of similarities and difference in DNA among species, makes it possible to actually trace the evolutionary process. Evolution is the very foundation of modern biological and medical research and progress throughout the world. Then why is it in the United States, one of the most universally-educated societies in the world, only 39 percent say they believe in evolution? The majority of Americans seem unable to distinguish between science and religion on this one aspect of science, and continue to try to deny students a proper scientific education by replacing evolution with creationism or its counterpart, “intelligent design.”
So what if there had never been a Darwin? Would there be no Theory of Evolution? Hardly, for there was another naturalist, 19 years his junior, Alfred Wallace, who was concurrently developing almost exactly the same analysis and conclusions. Absent Darwin, Wallace would have been the father of “Wallacism,” referring to the Theory of Evolution.
Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent
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