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Feb 02 2006

Why Darwin is dangerous

In a previous post, I looked at why many Christians seemed to find Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to be so objectionable. After all, many theories of physics also lead to conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible. The answers that physics and chemistry and geology and astronomy give to the question of the ages of the Earth and the universe are reason enough for anyone who believes in a 10,000 year old Earth to reject all those disciplines wholesale. And yet, biology seems to be the sole target of Biblical literalists.

One reason, of course, is that the idea that humans and apes descended a common ancestor is repulsive to some of those who think that god created humans “in his own image,” although other Christians have no trouble reconciling those two ideas.

Another reason is that evolution is not teleological. It is not leading towards any particular goal. While we can say where we came from, we cannot say where we are going. This creates an existential angst for those who like to believe that their lives are part of some great cosmic plan.

I pointed out that in the “wedge” strategy document that was developed by the Discovery Institute, they pointed to the teaching of evolution in schools as one of the main causes of the supposed moral and spiritual decay in the US and this view was reinforced in my own conversations with believers in intelligent design.

But there is still a deeper question that has to be posed and that is why it is believed by such people that Darwin’s ideas in particular, more than those of physics, cause a disbelief in god. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Daniel Dennett, author of that excellent book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, puts his finger on it.

SPIEGEL: In the center of the debate is the theory of evolution. Why is it that evolution seems to produce much more opposition than any other scientific theory such as the Big Bang or quantum mechanics?

Dennett: I think it is because evolution goes right to the heart of the most troubling discovery in science of the last few hundred years. It counters one of the oldest ideas we have, maybe older even than our species.

SPIEGEL: Which is what exactly?

Dennett: It’s the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

SPIEGEL: You think this idea was already present in apes?

Dennett: Maybe in Homo Habilus, the handyman, who began making stone tools some 2 million years ago. They had a sense of being more wonderful than their artifacts. So the idea of a creator that is more wonderful than the things he creates is, I think, a very deeply intuitive idea. It is exactly this idea that promoters of Intelligent Design speak to when they ask, ‘did you ever see a building that didn’t have a maker, did you ever see a painting that didn’t have a painter.’ That perfectly captures this deeply intuitive idea that you never get design for free.

SPIEGEL: An ancient theological argument…

Dennett: … which Darwin completely impugns with his theory of natural selection. And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators — very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people’s sense that life has meaning.

SPIEGEL: Even the spirit of humans — his soul — is produced in this manner?

Dennett: Yes. As a multi-cellular, mobile life form, you need a mind because you have to look out where you are going. You have got to have a nervous system, which can extract information from the world fast and can refine that information and put it to use quickly to guide your behavior. The basic problematic for all animals is finding what they need and avoiding what could hurt them and doing it faster than the opposition. Darwin understood this law and understood that this development has been going on for hundreds of millions of years producing ever more android minds.

SPIEGEL: But still, something out of the ordinary happened when humans came along.

Dennett: Indeed. Humans discovered language — an explosive acceleration of the powers of minds. Because now you can not just learn from your own experience, but you can learn vicariously from the experience of everybody else. From people that you never met. From ancestors long dead. And human culture itself becomes a profound evolutionary force. That is what gives us an epistemological horizon and which is far, far greater than that of any other species. We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.

In other words, Darwin tells us how life can bootstrap itself from primitive forms to increasingly complex and sophisticated ones. It reveals how you can have the appearance of design without any need for a designer. Thus the most intuitive argument for the existence of a higher being is removed.

And that can make all the difference. As Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6): “An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

The more I study Darwin’s theory and the development of it by modern science, the more I find it to be a work of immense beauty and power. I totally agree with Dawkins. Although I had not consciously thought of it that way before, I too feel that thanks to Darwin, I can also be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and I have to acknowledge: “Charlie, you’re the man.”

POST SCRIPT: Nibbling away at the first amendment?

We have reached a stage where wearing a T-shirt bearing the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq is grounds for arrest. Cindy Sheehan describes her arrest at the State of the Union.

Meanwhile, Beverly Young, the wife of Florida Republican congressman Bill Young said she “was kicked out of her gallery seat six rows away from Laura Bush for wearing a shirt reading “Support the Troops — Defending Our Freedom.” In this case, the police said, she didn’t get ejected — she was just asked to leave, and she did.”

Glenn Greenwald explains the law governing behavior inside the capitol and argues that what the women were doing was perfectly legal. That view gains support when today the Capitol police said they had made a mistake and apologized to the two women.

What is it about T-shirts with even mildly political messages that make the security forces start hyperventilating?

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