This weekend at Capclave, I'll be on a panel discussing Darwin. The panel description reads:
Darwin was born 200 years ago. Why are his ideas still controversial? Is the voyage of the Beagle the prototype for sf missions of scientific discovery? Why aren't there more books about Darwinism?
It's been a while since I've had a science post, so I'm going to do a little warm up for the panel with a gut reactions to these questions.
Working backwards, when I search Amazon for books mentioning Darwin, I come up with 100,000 hits. So, for the last question, I guess my reaction is, just how many books do you need? By comparison, Jesus has 400,000 hits on Amazon. Of course, this is also the same number of hits returned if you search for the word "diet." In any case, I hardly think that Darwin, natural selection, or evolution are suffering from a lack of exposure.
As for the Beagle being the prototype for SF missions, I think that, if there ever are going to be extra-solar explorations of other planets, they will almost certainly be carried out by the machines that eventually replace mankind. These machines will be able to claim that they were intelligently designed, and that their improvements are the result of deliberate actions. Perhaps they will regard evolution as a mere momentary blip in the natural order of things, the way it was once thought that capitalism was just a blip on the way to socialism. It's an interesting thought, but I'm not sure that I, personally, would be able to milk an entire book out of it.
Which brings us to the last question: Why are his ideas still controversial? And I suppose my answer is, what controversy? It's true that not everyone believes in evolution, and that a lot of people work hard to keep children from being exposed to these ideas. But, in the places where it really matters, I don't think that evolution or natural selection are controversial at all. Where does it really matter? How about hospitals, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and, of course, universities where the various aspects of biology are studied?
I'm not certain that it matters that half of all American's don't believe in evolution. It is, of course, the central narrative of biology; you can't really understand the natural world without understanding natural selection. But, relativity is a pillar of physics; I'm guessing maybe one person in a hundred has a firm grasp on relativity. Quantum mechanics is the other unreconciled pillar of physics, and I'd be shocked if one person in a thousand really understands the world on a quantum scale. Somehow, the world muddles through; people manage to become bankers and doctors and movie stars and rodeo clowns without understanding the difference between a photon and a proton. If you're an electrical engineer, you need to understand electrons. If you're a house painter... not so much.
I guess the major thing about Darwin, natural selection, and evolution, is that they aren't and shouldn't be and can't be major things in an average person's daily life. Natural selection has surprisingly little day to day impact on a person's behavior. Let's see... I suppose that understanding evolution can help you understand why it's important to finish off your full course of anti-biotics. But, it doesn't help you know how to invest your money. It doesn't guide you in how to deal with your friends and family. It won't tell you what to eat for dinner or what toothpaste will make your teeth their whitest.
Some people treat Darwin as a new prophet, pointing the way to a new religion. But if you really understand natural selection and evolution, you understand that it's actually a rather precise tool for understanding one specific aspect of biology. Some people attempt to misuse it, and say that Darwinism applies to economics. Other's will point to examples from the natural world and draw moral guidance from it. For instance, I've heard serious people argue that homosexuality either is or isn't moral based on things like whether or not there are gay penguins. If homosexuality evolved in flightless sea birds, it must not be a choice for humans. But, of course, if you promote this argument, what are you to make of bonobos, who are always promiscous? Or some insects, where the females devour the males? Turning to the guidance of animals for your moral choices is a dangerous slippery slope.
The one shocking aspect of Darwin--the thing that generates the most opposition--is that natural selection doesn't require a god to explain the existence of man. It doesn't rule out a god, but the theory doesn't have any major holes in it requiring divine intervention to explain our presence. But, I have to wonder how important the creation myth is to most religions. Is it really, really important, if you are a Christian, that the world was created in six days? How important is that fact to your day to day life? It seems far more likely that the parts of your religion that matter on a daily basis are the moral guidance to love your neighbors, treat the poor and the sick as if they might be Jesus himself, and to stop coveting your neighbor's ass? In all these matters, Darwin offers no guidance whatsoever. Carry on as you were before; science really just doesn't have a lot to tell you about whether or not it's moral to steal.
Darwin wasn't a prophet. He was a scientist. His theory is science, not religious philosophy. Any controversy that exists is built upon the myth of what he said, rather than his actual contributions to our understanding of the world. I don't really expect his opponents to grasp this, but I still hold out hope that, one day, his proponents might.