The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion


What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.

So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not so much.
The pollsters also tell us that America is unusually religious. Significantly more people believe in God than in the descent of the species, for sure. Something like 80% to 50% if we smooth the edges and throw salt over our shoulder. –I may be a skeptic but I’m still superstitious.

Caution, though: Pollsters tend to equate “being religious” with believing in God while people who are actually or nominally religious are often hedgy on the topic, making poll-taking an increasingly arduous business and the results increasingly incoherent and even contradictory. The bottom line is this, however: On the ground, America looks like a pretty religious, steeple-bedecked country. From the air, it looks like the country that gave the world the light bulb, the moon landing (and ‘Curiosity’ and Hubble), controlled atomic energy, the internet–and still manages to suck at teaching science.

A few things bother me about all this. Not least the number of people who take this debate seriously—who think it’s indicative of something ‘really important’. To them I say, Why?

There are certainly religious people out there who respond to the Darwin-question reflexively because it has been politicized and sloganeered. Remember the late 2011 GOP debates where only one candidate in the sideshow raised his hand in support of evolution—Portman, of blessed memory – the others eyeing each other nervously to see whose hands would stay squarely down and in view. Remember the applause? Sickening. I remember having to leave the room to slake my thirst with a shot of Jameson’s when I saw it.

But the hypocrisy betrays a deeper issue. The anti-Darwin camp has two distinct branches: those who really have a theological issue with the notion that species develop over time from rudimentary beginnings to more complex and advanced forms, until suddenly the whole process collapses and you get Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Just seeing if you are still paying attention.) And those who are intellectually lazy, uncurious, and believe what their friends believe, which probably comes with Tostitos, beer and vacation specials in Branson, MO. That Is to say, a lot of Darwin haters haven’t given a minute’s thought to Darwin in their whole hypoactive grill-it-and-eat it lives. They didn’t learn it from Mr Smeddle, their 9th grade biology teacher, who also coaches the chess team because he is tired of getting angry notes from mothers threatening to stink bomb his new Audi if he trashes the Bible. They didn’t learn it at the Yoknapatawpha Community College where they majored in small engine repair or Mall Security. They don’t talk about it at the weekly meal out at Chili’s where they wonder why their Appletini isn’t blue enough.

They think the people who do talk about it are weird and different, and some, because their friends are their friends, think there must be something subversive about it. They would believe it if you told them that Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were lovers, which is why people who believe in Darwin are almost always both gay and communists. Besides, how many times did Mr Smeddle have to remind his dozy, hormonally obedient class that it is “just a theory.” He did this while thinking to himself that the snickering fat kid with the dull brown eyes in the front row named Buddie is proof of recessive traits.

But hold on to that thought. The Darwin of the theory and the Darwin whose ideas informed modern evolutionary biology is one man in two undivine persons. A lot of good science can be taught without touching Darwin, just like a lot of good cosmology can be taught while still believing in God. The proof of this is that it happens every day. “Darwin” as a theory is not the basis for teaching the complex of disciplines we call the sciences. And this is in no way to detract from the fundamental importance of his thought. It is not to say you should teach around him, soft peddle his theory or consider him expendable. Let’s get that straight. But it is to say that both the people who think he is wrong or subversive of their religious views as well as people who want the first kind of people to see Darwin as the One True Guru and saviour of the rational soul are not really talking about science at all. They are talking about an emotionalized caricature of a view that does not seem to be very controversial outside underbelly America, the Islamic world, and covens of gristle-bearded Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv.

And it’s also to say that the way the subject is taught in schools guarantees its hot potato standing in the rank and file of committed, believing, conservative American Christians. I don’t mean to exempt Catholics and Jews from the battle, but the Catholic Church has been soft on Darwin since the time of Pius XII (d. 1958), and Jews have always rather liked old Charlie, as long as you don’t apply his ideas to race, economics and social theory; and even if you do, who wins? Just asking.

The Irish order of nuns who taught me in grammar school weren’t geniuses, but I remember Sister Mary Alacoque’s quick reply when I asked her one day if we came from monkeys. “I can’t say everyone did Joseph, but I’m quite sure about you.” When I got to serious stuff with the Benedictines a few years later, we were simply taught that evolution is a factual representation of the way God arranged things: brilliant isn’t He? But let’s be clear. It wasn’t Darwin who discovered this: it was Augustine and Thomas Aquinas many centuries before. Darwin, you see was a protestant and they have never discovered anything.

The Darwin cartoon that retarded [sicut dixit] Christians have manufactured of his ideas is based on ignorance and fear and ignorance and fear are the oxygen of conservative religion and conservative politics. It is why they are usually found in bed together. But I’m not sure the cure for ignorance is slamming the ignorant. If you want more Buddies in the front row, avoid the topic. If you want more school boards saying it can’t be taught or has to be taught alongside pieces of ancient mythology then make sure it is taught badly. A born again teacher who teaches bad science can say a lot with her voice when she says to a class of ignoramuses, just like her. “Now, some people say that our species is descended from an ape like ancestor. But…well, I can’t really say this, so I will just go on to tell you what the other theory says. Now I really like this one…” Be sure that this teacher exists multiply all over Texas and throughout the Bible belt.
I do happen to think that you have to be a little shy in the compression chamber not to “believe” in evolution. I also believe that people need to get that there is a reason America is a special case among the nations of the world, the Immaculate Contradiction, when it comes to the bible, guns and Darwin.

Because it is here in America that two things happened simultaneously in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that have only flowed together in the last one hundred years.

It is here that the radical and separatist religions of European Protestantism managed to survive and promote their doctrines about the Bible and salvation. Here they spawned mightily, and here they spread, even over the whole land. Some, like the puritans of New England, were rigid Cambridge-trained Calvinists, men of learning who considered the English church they left behind unpurged of pomp and Catholic superstition. Some, like the Ulster Scots mountain men of Tennessee and North Carolina, who came from a later incursion of riff-raff (lit., the remainder—men with no prospects who worked their fare to the new world out by labour) had never seen the inside of a school. If they were literate at all, it was because Grannie McCoy taught them from the Bible, but most weren’t.

Something else was happening in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia: The European Enlightenment found its constitutional and ideological embodiment in a new and highly experimental democracy, the world’s first modern example of what Lincoln would call a hundred years on ‘government by the people.’ No, that is not me being patriotic. It is me saying that while the raccoon hunters of America’s outback huddled in their towns and villages, married their cousins, and built their wooden churches for Holy Ghost preaching apart from the elite, the elite were doing something rather different. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Columbia (King’s College) Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers were all founded before 1800—three in the seventeenth century. To put this in perspective, Shakespeare died in 1616. Harvard opened its venerable oak doors in 1634. While this was happening, the raccoon hunters praised God, made whisky, sang tuneful songs of their distant Elizabethan past (“Barbry Allen” is my favourite: listen to Jean Redpath’s version) and were fruitful and multiplied. Their inflections and tropes for centuries were pure if embarrassing reminders of the dulcets of the England of yore, dosed with sour mash.
Even a foreigner who looks at an American Red-state Blue-state electoral map can see what has happened. What has happened is that the “One nation, under God, indivisible” slogan of the post-Civil War era has not held up to the social realities of the last century and a half. The offending passage indeed is not “under God” but the illusion that the United States is any sense One Nation.

It didn’t happen because of Darwin. It didn’t happen because of Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama. But sure as the world, it happened. It happened by natural increase, wealth and poverty, genetics, location, a shrinking continent and communications and the Civil War and loosening state boundaries. The culture wars are simply an expression of the two-nation reality that is modern America, that is politics, that is divided government, that is education, that is gun control, that is the educational agenda. The flowing together of these two realities after the Civil War, complicated by floods of immigration (but not primarily of the old guard Presbyterian hunters, English merchants and scholars, and gentleman farmers as afore) is also a country where those whose survival depended on Bible Truth and Gospel Lesson had to do business with those who had by and large survived very well without either. It’s no accident that the paradigm for this encounter—the Epic Moment—is geographically situated in a Tennessee court case of the 1920’s where a teacher very much like Mr. Smeddle, but far more courageous, was ‘accused’ of teaching evolution and berating the truth of the Genesis creation story.

So the very nearly 50-50 split over the Darwin Thing is almost too perfect a symbol of a nation that sometimes seems poised to fight another war. Heaven knows, there are enough guns to do it—several times over. A country that seems united only by its legal tender, MacDonalds, WalMart and outlet malls but deeply divided in every other way. It is spiritually divided, not between brights and dims, but between the knows and the know nots.
But let me end with a rip of the pro-Darwin lobbyists who are becoming something of a joke in their reverse caricature of the evangelical Darwin cartoon. Darwin was a man of his time. Any good intellectual historian knows that he was not doing more than being a good observer and a meticulous reporter of  “the undeniable evidence of nature.” The century before him was abuzz with the word “development”: from Hegel (who died 28 years before the publication of Origin of Species) onward the model was set. History was not a static process that left the things it acted on as it found them. It was a dynamic flow that left ideas, languages, technologies, gods, and landscapes fundamentally altered. Darwin’s shocking idea was that given enough history—enough time—organic changes that would have been imperceptible over the lifespan of a single organism could be extrapolated to produce adaptations so profound that all existing biological life could be explained, in all its variety, as a result of earlier forms. Our species didn’t stand outside that process but within it. The discovery of the last generation is that the same process affects the environment; and the news from science in the last fifty years is that the universe itself is a process not a closed orb with fixed coordinates and boundaries.

It seems to me that the “evolutionists” do themselves a disservice when they rip Darwin out of this intellectual matrix only to insist that he was “right” and religion is “wrong.” I mean simply that evolution is much bigger than they are making it. Darwin’s revolution was the biological wing of our discovery of process. Ironically, the same process in the same century he lived had already given us literary archaeology and biblical criticism, ways of dating and comparing ancient texts, discoveries of analogues that made it obvious that the biblical stories were adaptations of earlier tales—the same sort of thing that would soon be applied to biological species and the cosmos.

To make a cult of Darwin’s rightness may preserve his importance. But it prevents the student of history from seeing him—with Marx, Feuerbach, Mueller, Freud and a dozen others– as one of the expositors of the Hegelian tradition. Perhaps that is because he is British, and the others weren’t and it is a British trait to stand apart from the Germans.  More likely it is because Hegel himself pronounced negatively on evolution in his Philosophy of Nature–
“It is a completely empty thought to represent species as developing successively, one after the other, in time…. The land animal did not develop naturally out of the aquatic animal, nor did it fly into the air on leaving the water….Man has not developed himself out of the animal, nor the animal out of the plant; each is at a single stroke what it is.”

But as Stephen Houlgate has noted, Hegel’s quarrel with a theory he never read (but obviously anticipated) has to do with his rigid insistence on logic as the determiner of events: “Hegel’s anti-evolutionary stance obviously has its source in his philosophical interest in the logical rather than temporal relations between phenomena in nature. What he seeks to understand is not the historical process whereby phenomena in nature have come to be the way they are, but the logic that requires nature to have the structure that it now has: ‘the point of interest is not to determine how things were millions of years ago … the interest is confined to what is there before us’ and to recognize in the present character of nature ‘the characteristics of the Concept’.” This in turn was why Darwin’s thinking was a true revolution: because it recognized a principle of change that went beyond the logical, temporal confines of history into patches of time that the new science of geology was just beginning to make known.

But no poet, no scientist, no naturalist, no anthropologist –no intellectual of the nineteenth century was untouched by Hegel’s understanding of the transforming power of time and history. So while we applaud Darwin’s great idea, let’s also trim him to size. Let’s not do Darwin days and Darwin’s birthday as though he is the greatest secular saint. Let’s avoid making him a tribal factotum to irritate religious people, a barometer to test the scientific orthodoxy of the mild dissenter. And most of all, let us develop a pedagogy for the teaching of evolution based on the principles that made the theory possible. To do that, we need a chapter in our high school and college texts called ‘”The Discovery of Change in the Nineteenth Century” that integrates the information for student who otherwise sees history as a hodgepodge of unrelated information. What Darwin knew, because of his experimental model, that Hegel didn’t, because of his logical one, is that the historical task is basically limited to describing things as they are in a temporal framework made puny by the nature of process that sweeps living things along over millions of years with no regard for their security or success.

We don’t need to teach for or against Darwin’s theory. But we need to explain to our students that theory in this case means “explanation,” not a best guess. We don’t need to “teach the controversy”—there isn’t one. Creationism is false and evolutionary creationism is unproved. We need to produce scientists who are humanistic enough and humanities teachers who are scientific enough to see how fields of knowledge intersect—have always intersected—and nourish thinking about the world in a multidisciplinary way. Darwin can be an indispensable starting point for that conversation, but only if we stop asking people if they believe in his theory.

7 thoughts on “The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion

  1. Joseph:

    Excellent post – fascinating overview and history lesson; much food for thought – arguably the framework and theme for a worthwhile book. Although I do, of course, have a few quibbles and, hopefully, a few more substantive comments that I can, hopefully, mash into something not much more than 500 words:

    A few things bother me about all this. Not least the number of people who take this debate seriously …. To them I say, Why?

    While some might say it is a stretch to argue that the fate of the Western World hangs in the balance awaiting the outcome of that debate, I would say “not by much”. As you have persuasively and cogently argued, America is not “in any sense One Nation”, and the attendant disparities implicit in that fact hardly bode well for America – or for the rest of the world for that matter. Apropos of which is the relatively recent documentary “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers”, a “hearfelt look at why faith is dividing America”. And in the Islamic world as well – extremely problematic that the “Taliban” in both Pakistan and in Texas have access to weapons that greatly exceed both their maturity and their commitments to civilization.

    Although that of course still doesn’t answer your question as to why one should care about the “fate of the Western World”. Why not say, “apres mois, le deluge”? Why not go whole hog and take to heart the sentiment in a bumper sticker I saw advertised in “The Nihilist’s Newsletter” [published quarterly since 1848]: “End human suffering for all time – drop the bomb!”? Unfortunately though, the historical evidence is that the first philosophy at least, if at all prevalent or common, tends to precipitate the very thing feared.

    But, even apart from that non-trivial self-survival aspect, there is, I think, any number of worthwhile feelings, sentiments, and principles that also hang in that balance. Francis Bacon said, “I hold every man to be a debtor to his profession” which one might also reasonably extend, analogously, to “every last man-Jack [and Jill] of us”, and to one’s civilization. And Jacob Bronowski in his book The Ascent of Man – a BBC documentary as well – also alluded to that same sense of obligation and commitment:

    And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into – into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery [“philosophick romances”]. …. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. ….

    We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man [and woman, presumably six steps behind], every civilization has gone forward because of its engagement of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man. [pgs 268-269]

    Rather much along the same line as Lincoln’s speech:

    It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ….

    Not just all of the dead who have died in various wars for questionable causes, but also for the many unsung heroes and heroines who have done likewise – did you know that the rate for childbirth deaths has historically been about 1 in 100, or about 1 billion women since we were recognizably “sapient” (more or less), before science and technology and rationality were able to reduce that a hundredfold? Who have, as Desiderata put it, “striven for high ideals”. It just seems rather “pikerish”, rather boorishly unappreciative of that long line of contributors to our “commonwealth”, to deny that obligation, to fail to at least make some effort to “pass the torch” in whatever way we are able to.

    Moot point though whether it will be “as bloody to proceed as to go back” – as I think Shakespeare said. But that still seems a choice we have to make, even if in some “fear and trembling”.

    Remember the applause? Sickening. I remember having to leave the room to slake my thirst with a shot of Jameson’s when I saw it.

    🙂 As good a reason as any other.

  2. Interesting…But I don’t understand all the Darwin Bashing…Darwin touched on something people just can’t seem to wrap there little cranium around…we came from lesser species over millions of years of evolution…Although we have such high levels of thought…that in no way proves of any God..Goddess or anything divine..

    We are simply monkeys with high speed computers……Now as I say that…I think the conundrum is…Many people say “So What?” …Where do we go from here…any naturalist/biologist worth his or her salt knows an apex organism will procreate till there is no more resources for said organism to survive…

    It is only humans that can change a habitat through it’s technology to survive almost anywhere on the planet. Are we going to devolve…Or are we going to grasp for something better out of life…Are we going to go past all the wasted effort of warfare or religious zeal that uses it/s beliefs to perpetuate war…and that goes for much non-belief ideology as well…It has proved to be just as dangerous…

    For all our knowledge, and forethought…and hindsight…why do we look forward in a positive light…With the thoughts of Darwin in our pocket…For anyone that wants to bash on Darwin..and Darwin love…well..that is quite a straw man…and bring up Hegel…let’s look far off to the east on the planet…As is Dubai..which is a straw city…Made totally from money made of oil rich Arabs and the like.including Americans too….with not one solar panel in place anywhere noticeable, but there are sky hills from desalinated water in large buildings for the rich to ski down…with the blazing heat kept at bay outside.Food of high quality is shipped in from many miles away….

    And here we are still going to have arguments over politicizing Darwin..I like Darwin day…It gives me hope that the education still will catch up in reality. And they might look outside of religion…and war for profit, and control of humanity…I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from my favorite adsurdist quote…“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Albert Camus…
    Darwin happened to be a rebel in science..and he had all the proof of discovery to back it up…Have a great day..I really liked the made some great points. I don’t think Darwin Worship is something that is such a terrible thing…As long as someone is not insane about it..and I don’t think really anyone is. Not even Richard Dawkins himself worships at any altars to Darwin…quite the contrary in fact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s