Skyhooks and cranes-7: Early American reactions to evolution


(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The original question that started this series was why there is such deep-seated and long-standing hostility to Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially in America. It is one that I am often asked and is not a question that can be answered briefly.

As I have suggested, part of the reason could be that the fact that even the human mind and consciousness may not be anything special but are the products of the working of the mindless natural selection algorithm and following the same natural laws is disturbing to some. Evolution, properly understood, rules out any non-material cause for the properties of living things, and this can be disturbing to religious and non-religious people alike who want to cling on to the romantic idea that humans are somehow special or that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained in terms of natural laws.

But what really begs for an explanation is why the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction from the religious community to Darwin’s theory. After all, other theories of science such as the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar system and the Big Bang theory of the universe also directly contradict the Bible and yet there is not the same level of antipathy towards them. Furthermore, all of science, not just the theory of evolution, has a materialist basis and demands methodological naturalism, so if one is opposed to evolution because one rejects those preconditions, then why not oppose all of science as well? Why is it that it is the theory of evolution that gets religious people’s goat?

The answer has both general philosophical features that transcend nations and religions and cultures, and specific historical, political, and legal features that apply just to the US.

One general reason is that Darwin’s theory deals with life and people think that life is especially close to god. Thus any theory like Darwin’s theory of natural selection that makes god redundant in life’s creation hits closer to home than one that makes god redundant in (say) the creation of stars and galaxies. Religious people seem to find it easier to think of the non-living world as obeying natural laws than to think of living things doing the same.

Another reason is that the other laws of science that suggested that we live in a law-driven mechanical universe in which we are not central arose much earlier, with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, and religious people and institutions have had time to overcome their initial abhorrence and come to terms with it. Maybe with the passage of another hundred years or so, people will similarly accept Darwin’s theory.

Those religious reasons for opposition of the theory are general and apply across the globe. But there is no doubt that the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction to the theory of evolution and this has puzzled many people. It is tempting to put this down to features that are peculiar to the US, that it has perhaps a greater number of vocal religious fundamentalists or that people here think that the US is somehow closer to god than other nations and thus special in his sight, and thus the implications of the theory of evolution are more disturbing.

As I argue in my forthcoming book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I don’t think there is anything particularly different in the American psyche that is the cause. I think that the reason for the excess hostility is due to a confluence of historical factors. The most important one is the recognition by the founders of the US constitution of the dangers of too much religious influence in the affairs of the state. They had seen only too well in the countries of Europe that they had left behind the religious persecutions that can arise when any one religion gains dominance in government. This led them to incorporate the Establishment Clause in the US constitution and to encourage the creation of a “wall of separation” (in Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase) between church and state.

Even though the early American colonists were religious and shared a largely unified Protestant doctrine, there were other groups (Jew, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists) who belonged to religious traditions that differed significantly, and the need to prevent dominance by any one led even religious people to see the benefits of keeping religion out of public affairs, especially the schools. The steady elimination of religious practices (such as Bible readings and prayer) in public schools had started in America long before Darwin’s theory had gained notoriety.

Furthermore, is important to realize that the idea of evolution itself, that species can change, was not a fundamental threat to the idea of god. They could live in harmony by introducing various auxiliary hypotheses, such as the idea that god was guiding the process of evolution with the goal of eventually producing humans and all the other species. It was the mechanism of natural selection, with its crane-like unguided nature, that completely ruled out any skyhook-like role for god. This important element of Darwin’s theory is the one that is particularly upsetting to religious believers and was not easily accepted even by the scientific community of his time.

But in the early days of Darwin’s theory, the deeply anti-religious implications of natural selection were not fully appreciated. Many scientists (in addition to lay people) did not accept this lack of direction or purpose and proposed alternative mechanisms for evolution that retained them. Even Darwin initially thought that other mechanisms were also at play in evolution and as a result, although evolutionary ideas were gaining greater acceptance, natural selection did not rise to dominance along with them.

Next: Alternative mechanisms for evolution

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