Who's afraid of Charles Darwin?

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • April 24, 2008

{mosimage}For the next year at least you are going to be hearing a lot about Charles Darwin. There is a growing worldwide movement to declare Feb. 12 Darwin Day. Next year is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the push is on to use the occasion to mark the triumph of scientific reasoning.

Then there is Darwin: The Evolution Revolution, on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto until Aug. 4. Going to this exhibit celebrating the man and his triumph won’t likely convince you that Family Day should be renamed Darwin Day.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the Darwin Exhibit is that it’s buried in the basement. Such a marvellous new building for an institution that prides itself on its place in celebrating natural history and arguably the great scientist of natural history is being celebrated in the basement. Secondly, it is curious that the sponsorship of the exhibit lacks all of the big names of historical extravaganzas; apparently the usual suspects were afraid of tackling something so controversial. The third thing you notice is that for an exhibit which makes much of the religious controversy stirred up by the man who feared he had killed religion is that one of the sponsors, a key one, is the United Church Observer. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to figure out that there is something a wee bit awry with this picture.

There are a lot of myths and misperceptions about Darwin, evolution and religion and unfortunately this exhibit will do very little if anything to clear away bad thinking. Repeatedly the ROM’s signboards hint at the controversy that Darwinism provoked in the 19th century and provokes to this day, but what exactly the controversy is remains a mystery. Ironically the quotation that comes from John Paul II, that Darwinism may explain the emergence of the human being but can never explain the emergence of the human soul, would seem to once and for all put an end to any sense that there is a controversy.

Yet controversy there is. But the debate about Darwinism and evolution is actually, for the most part, a red herring. Secularists like to argue that because some Christians reject Darwinism, religion is unthinking and, further, that because Darwinism supposedly discredited religion, religion is a dead end. But this is not Darwinism, for as the man himself noted: “It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.”

Nor are these propositions actually factual statements about religion. What modern-day Darwinists can’t seem to accept is that, with the exception of strict biblical literalists, most religious individuals and religions have no problem with evolution. To the extent that a problem exists, it is when evolutionists make claims for Darwinian truth outside of biological explanation.

Ironically, the exhibit has to explain that when political or social movements such as eugenics or survival-of-the fittest political parties or racists claim to situate their positions in the thinking of Darwin, such movements are going beyond what Darwin ever claimed. The exhibit itself reiterates that Darwin is about biological explanation and that any values attributed to such explanations transgress the science.

So, who has the problem with Darwin: the religious-minded who believe that Darwin is silent on the question of the human soul, the nature of good and evil and the idea of sin, or the secularists who think that because Darwin could explain the multiplicity of species or the idea of genetic adaptation then there is no need for God?

It’s possible that the defenders and promoters of Darwin are in need of a reality check. Someone needs to sit them down and explain that for most of us “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” isn’t all that dangerous or even much of a problem. When it is, it is largely because of what Darwin’s latter-day advocates attempt to prove with the bare bones of his life and work.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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