Books on Science and Religion #17: Darwin and On the Origin of Species

Books on Science and Religion #17: Darwin and On the Origin of Species

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Bahá’u’lláh

Sept 28, 2014

In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species – a greatly influential and widely read book arguing for a theory of evolution based on natural selection that is also one of the foundational texts of 19th century materialism. 1,170 copies were on sale for the first edition, but the numbers sold grew rapidly, reaching a phenomenal 108,000 by 1901.

The Guardian newspaper in England, echoing a widespread modern sentiment, considers On the Origin Species as “part of the literary canon: Darwin joins Aristotle and St Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton and Stuart Mill, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac in that pantheon of texts that provide the foundations of western culture.” Darwin is now regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of all times.

PSM_V21_D154_Charles_DarwinWhy was it so influential, we must ask. After all, the book wasn’t about proven scientific facts. Scientific support for Darwinism – or more correctly, for neo-Darwinism – didn’t materialize until 70 years later (and didn’t snap fully into place until DNA was discovered by Crick and Watson). And the perspectives of Spencer and Lamarck were as influential publicly – or sometime more influential – during much of those 70 years. The book, rather, is a long extended argument to persuade the general public – and the British scientific community – that evolutionary ideas (see Books on Science and Religion #16: The Evolution of English Evolution) and their implications could be put on a sound scientific basis. In this, Darwin succeeded brilliantly.

The Baha’i Faith on Evolution

What does the Baha’i Faith say about evolution? The short answer is that it endorses the scientific aspects of evolution and some of its metaphysical perspectives. Examples of the later include the idea of physical evolution and the idea that we come into being by the processes of natural law. But the Baha’i Faith rejects 19th century materialistic doctrines that are often conjoined with evolution. Example are ideologies that hold that humans are simply animals, that progress is by means of competition and conflict, that evolution and science obviate the need for religion, or that the races of man are separate and different species with some superior and some inferior. Interestingly, there is no direction mention of Lamarck, Spencer, or Darwin in the authenticated Baha’i Writings, only references to European philosophers and the like.a-walk-at-dusk

A useful overview and analysis of what the Baha’i writings say – more specifically, what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says – about evolution can by found in Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution (Courosh Mehanian and Stephen Friberg, The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 13, no. 1/4 (2003): 55-93).  Here is how they summarize it.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá espouses an evolutionary perspective as the framework for understanding the emergence of man. He describes man as evolving through stages, starting in the mineral kingdom, then moving through the vegetable and animal kingdoms before arriving in the human kingdom. He also describes life as developing from a single origin by a slow process over extremely long periods of time. Thus, he embraces an evolutionary viewpoint that is in broad general agreement with that of the biological sciences: the earth is very ancient, life evolved from simple origins, man evolved through the animal world, and man’s attributes are a consequence of his evolution.

Aspects of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s thought are at odds with certain conventional interpretations of evolution. He emphasizes that humans, while sharing characteristics in common with the animals, are in some fundamental ways distinct and different from them. He also emphasizes—repeatedly—that humans have always existed, either potentially or in actuality. He explains evolution by analogy with the development of an embryo or a seed. Much as a tree exists potentially in a seed or as an adult exists potentially in an embryo, man is present at the beginning in the evolutionary process. He thus describes evolutionary mechanisms of development not only as intrinsic to the growth of life on earth (and an essential aspect of spiritual development), but as the unfolding of God’s creation. He stresses that man—and all the rest of creation—is created by God.

abdul-bahaWhat does On the Origin of Species say?

On the Origin of Species, as is the case with the story of Charles Darwin, has been so eulogized and mythologized that it can be difficult to get straight what Darwin had to say, or to figure out his theory. As a reliable resource, I usually recommend the National Center for Science Education (NCIS), although it mainly turns a blind eye to the substitute-religion aspects of Darwinism. NCIS’s Defining Evolution provides a reliable overview.

However for our purposes here the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia’s website on Darwinism provides a more precise and more concise overview. Here it is in a slightly condensed form:

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

  1. Species are comprised of individuals that vary ever so slightly from each other with respect to their many traits.
  2. Species have a tendency to increase in size over generations at an exponential rate.
  3. This tendency, given limited resources, disease, predation, and so on, creates a constant condition of struggle for survival among the members of a species.
  4. Some individuals will have variations that give them a slight advantage in this struggle, variations that allow more efficient or better access to resources, greater resistance to disease, greater success at avoiding predation, and so on.
  5. These individuals will tend to survive better and leave more offspring. Offspring tend to inherit the variations of their parents. Therefore favorable variations will tend to be passed on more frequently than others, a tendency Darwin labeled ‘Natural Selection’.
  6. Over time, especially in a slowly changing environment, this process will cause the character of a species to change.
  7. Given a long enough period of time, the descendant populations of an ancestor species will differ enough to be classified as different species, a process capable of indefinite iteration. There are, in addition, forces that encourage divergence among descendant populations, and the elimination of intermediate varieties.

Tree of Life

Notice that there are no claims here about man being just an animal, or that science disproves the existence of God and efficacy of religion, or that society advances by conflict and contention.

But, of course, evolution was already a highly popular and widely discussed topic by the time that Darwin published his theory, and the richness and variety of those views crowded over and around what is presented here in a restrained and scientifically clear formulation. Darwin’s theory – based as it was on the empirical facts of animal breeding as widely practiced in the United Kingdom with the animal breeder’s manipulations replaced by variation and natural selection – proved very satisfactory to evolution’s scientific critics and this let loose the floodgates of the public’s philosophical imagination and its thirst for a “scientific” replacement for religion. Darwin, as might be suspected, was himself susceptible to such popular enthusiasms, as was to become clear in his later publications.

Next Blog

In the next blog we talk about Darwin and his more radical enthusiasms – a discussion of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. To quote Wikipedia:

Darwin applies evolutionary theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection, a form of biological adaptation distinct from, yet interconnected with, natural selection. The book discusses many related issues, including evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, differences between human races, differences between sexes, the dominant role of women in choosing mating partners, and the relevance of the evolutionary theory to society.

Racy stuff. Will you be surprised if it turns out that Darwin was a male chauvinist?

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This is the 17th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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