Darwin’s Victory

I suppose when an institution has been in some kind of existence since the days of the Roman emperors then they know a thing or two about re-positioning themselves to stay at the top table.

A leading Vatican official declared recently that Darwin’s theory of evolution was compatible with Christian faith, and could even be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. “In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God,” said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. The Vatican also dealt the final blow to speculation that Pope Benedict XVI might be prepared to endorse the theory of Intelligent Design, whose advocates credit a “higher power” for the complexities of life.

Breathtaking stuff!

In the realm of politics this would be like Margaret Thatcher declaring that she always had a soft spot for Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International.

Or like Ian Paisley declaring that a United Ireland was the only sensible solution to the problems of the people on this small island d.

Terms like “ one eighty” really don’t do this justice.

Perhaps this was the day when feudalism finally threw in the towel.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition……….

They definitely don’t expect it to fold up its tent and go away.

The organization that tortured Galileo and reacted in horror at the publication of “The origin of Species” in 1859 have finally smelled the de-caff.

The Hitler Jugend chap formerly known as Ratzinger was, before his elevation, the head of the modern equivalent of the Inquisition.

I will declare an interest. Darwin has been a hero of mine since boyhood.

On summer holidays in Mayo my little boat jumped from island to island in Clew Bay. It was a  humble oul rowing boat without a name.

I named it “the Beagle”.  I didn’t discover any new species on a boggy Galapagos in Mayo, but the idea of Darwin discovering new species, new ideas captured me as a twelve year old.

I was only born a century after he published, but my world, because of him, was so utterly different from the world that had existed a 100 years before  “Origin” was published.

None of this is ancient history. The mother who fretted on the quayside about her dangerously aquatic son was alive when a science teacher in America stood trial for teaching evolution.

The scientific discoveries after Darwin re-inforced the brilliant insights of his original work about the origins of life on this planet.

The discovery of DNA by Crick and Brown in the 1950s and the ability to isolate and mark DNA in the 1980s has had profound effects on how we consider our species in relation to others.

If you were raised in a Eurocentric Christian household, then you will have been informed that “dumb animals” were created by God, but not in God’s own image. That special place was set aside for us Homo sapiens.

There is, of course, no objective evidence that God made man in his/her/its own image. There is a hillside of evidence from every human culture on the planet — contemporary and historical — that humans have made and remade their deities to suit their own material experience at that time.

As human experience changed, so did our view of the deities that comforted us. Gods and Goddesses soothed our nasty, brutal short lives with the certainty that there was “something else”. To contemplate the reality that this is all there is still too much for most of the planet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is no deity.

Think about our ancestors, huddled round fires without a scintilla of scientific knowledge to explain the terrible plagues and natural disasters that cut short their awful lives. Developing a belief in God made good survival sense. Any survival school worth its salt hammers home to would be castaways the importance of a positive mental attitude. That is any God’s utility function.

There isn’t, of course, “anything else”.

The question “is there life before death?” is, here, very appropriate.

The Religious Right has been an enemy of science since Galileo’s time. As the USA became the dominant force in the world, it was to be expected that the dominant religion of that society would become the main enemy of the scientific project.

The Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Tennessee was a show trial that made manifest the ideas of that particular ruling class. Protestant fundamentalism ruled in the Southern States and science was seen as un-Biblical, which it is.

It is, of course, no coincidence that this haven of freethinking provided Big Ian Paisley with his doctorate.

The most pilloried and misunderstood parish in the social sciences at the moment is Evolutionary Psychology. It doesn’t look at what people say they do, or aspire to, but actually what they really do — especially when they think no one is looking.

Having got such reliable data, these scientists then look for comparable patterns in the animal kingdom — especially among our primate relatives. It has continued to uncover that we are much more like animals and animals much more like us than previous generations had been led to believe.

It is not now incontestable that religion was a product of evolution — it has a survival benefit. People who believe in a deity have longer, happier lives than atheists like Derrig. So the practice of religion itself establishes that humans — and the cultures we create — are proof positive of the existence of evolution and our place in it.

What science now knows is that we share 98% — yes 98% — common DNA with the Bonobo, also known as the Pygmy chimp. Scientists who work with these wee people consistently relate that on a one-to-one basis, they are eerily human.

They are highly organised socially, absolutely sex mad they have a wide repertoire of sexual positions. Unlike other primates, they mate face to face — just like we do. They have the “copulatory gaze”, that is they look into each other’s eyes before they go at it.

It is now, because of IVF and what we know of the genome of both species, scientifically feasible to have a crossbreed ‘Humanzee’ just as horses and donkeys are crossbred to produce mules.

In cognitive tests, chimpanzees outstrip human infants for a considerable length of time.

The ‘Chimpanzees’ tea party so loved by the British of yesteryear was actually a piece of ironic theatre. The chimps had to be taught to make a mess at the table. They were well able to figure out how to use cups, plates, etc in an appropriate manner. Chimps who are introduced to human domestic arrangements have no problems in adapting to the foibles of their nearest relatives.

In the 1960s, a female chimp, Washoe, was raised in the USA as a deaf child and was signed to in America Sign Language. The humans around her never used spoken language.

When she communicated with her ‘parents’, Washoe produced sentences akin to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old human child. Primatologists looking anew at our cousins in the wild discerned that a basic sign language was at work.

They also have discovered that chimps express moral outrage if a member of the clan goes back on an agreement. Therefore, they have an understanding of values and ethics and that a deal is a deal.

Science has also proven beyond anyone’s reasonable doubt that the higher primates are self-conscious. They know they are unique. They recognise themselves in mirrors — unlike cats and dogs, who just see a rival and unknowingly square up to their own image. Chimps see themselves.

We are blessed with extra frontal lobes in our brains, a stronger lower back, opposable thumbs and better vocal chords. That is the extra advantage that evolution has given us.

If we are so close to the other primates, what then makes us — in the religious worldview — so different from these other apes? We are surely apes — a product of the same evolution that produced Bonobos, lemurs, tree frogs, cheetahs and antelopes.

So where does the “immortal soul” come in?

As man-made God in his own image, so he changed the rules about the place of animals in the scheme of things once he started to domesticate them. It is no coincidence that hunter-gatherer societies, who live in symbiosis with the beasts of the forest, have a very different worldview of animals than agricultural societies.

Where the lord of the hunt becomes the lord is my shepherd, don’t expect much respect for the dominated domesticates in the field.

There is no objective reason, other than the prejudice laid down by the religious right, that says we are special because God created us.

If there is such a thing as human rights, then there is no reason why those special rights should not be afforded to chimpanzees. That would have serious implications for zoos and the scientific community, whose treatment of our primate siblings, as with other inmates of their labs, is nothing short of scandalous.

The Renaissance in Europe represented the break out of the human mind, the first defeat in Western Europe for religious superstition and the power of the Church over learning.

Once science established a foothold in the affairs of mankind then there was no rolling it back.

We live in a Western Europe that is increasingly secular. God has little place in our discourses. The recent debate about the place of God in the new EU constitution would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. The new Europe’s civic discourse will be closer to Camus than Dana.

Cultures evolve. The religious are tolerated by a secular majority. The next stage in that journey must be to deconstruct any notion that we are anything but a product of evolution. To grant our nearest relatives the same rights that we agree every human on the planet should have just because we are of this species would be of huge symbolic importance.

It would signal the final defeat — in Europe at any rate — for the creation myth as peddled by Christians for millennia. No creation myth means no Creator. No Creator means the dawning of a future that is truly humanist.

If we accept our familial responsibilities to the remaining 30,000 higher primates in the will — and those we keep captive for our entertainment and experimentation — then we can build a worldview that might start us behaving in a way that gives this planet and the rest of its tenants a fighting chance for survival.

Monkey Trial Background

When the anti-evolution Butler Act was passed in Tennessee in March 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a campaign seeking someone to challenge this law that forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools. George W Rappleyea of Dayton read an ACLU advert and decided that the potential publicity generated by such a challenge would be a good way to attract businesses and industries to his town.

Although John Scopes was never actually sure he taught evolution (he was a high-school coach who had substituted for the biology teacher during the last few weeks of the school year), he volunteered to challenge the law which made it “unlawful for any teacher” in any of the public schools of the state “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”. Scopes went to trial.

William Jennings Bryan was called in to assist the prosecution, while famed defence lawyer, Clarence Darrow, led the defence. A carnival atmosphere pervaded Dayton as the opening of the trial approached in July of 1925. Banners decorated the streets. Lemonade stands were set up. Chimpanzees, said to have been brought to town to testify for the prosecution, performed in a side show on Main Street. The trial began on 10 July 1925 and lasted several days. A team of scientists and even theologians travelled to Dayton to help the Scopes’ defence (although their testimony was not part of the trial, it is recorded in the transcripts) and to proclaim that evolution was true and that the law should therefore be struck down. The statements of the experts were widely reported by the press, helping Darrow succeed in his efforts to turn the trial into a national biology lesson.

After Darrow questioned Bryan on the witness stand, and before Bryan could do the same to his counterpart, Darrow decided to have Scopes plead guilty in order to avoid being examined by Bryan on the stand. The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow was reported by the press as a defeat for Bryan.

Scopes was fined $100. This conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

The Scopes trial by no means ended the debate over the teaching of evolution, but it did represent a significant setback for the anti-evolution forces. Of the 15 states with anti-evolution legislation pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enacted laws restricting teaching of Darwin’s theory.

Today in the United States the “Intelligent Design” movement has tried to portray the scientific community as being split on the origin of life on this planet.

The Intelligent Design movement’s main arguments have been that of “irreducible complexity.” That life is on earth is so complex that it couldn’t possibly have emerged by chance. One example of this they offer is the design of the human eye. That the rods and cones inside the human eye are so complex that the hand of a creator must be at work.

In fact if an omnipotent omniscient creator was at work then he/she/it didn’t do a very good job in design the human eye. In some respects it is quite inefficient.

Having failed in several test cases in the USA to get Intelligent Design (ID) afforded the same legitimacy as Evolution in schools the supporters of ID had hoped that the current Pope would approve of ID.

He didn’t.

It would be comforting to think that the Vatican tactical white flag on Darwin is the final victory of science over superstition, but it isn’t.

However, it is still worth enjoying the moment.

Science rules Ok.




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