"This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection," wrote Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (full text available online here).
"The Preservation of Favoured Races." That phrase -- the subtitle of Darwin's Origin of Species -- is shocking to a 21st-century ear until you realize it doesn't mean what you may have thought it did. As the great naturalist explains in the text, he's referring not to any notions of racial superiority, but, rather, to the "preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations" among all the species of animals and plants that have been fruitful and multiplied upon the earth. Darwin called this process of nonrandom elimination "natural selection," memorably dubbed by his contemporary, philosopher Herbert Spencer, "survival of the fittest."
But don't confuse some people with the facts. They'd rather get it wrong from the start and run with it if it furthers their agenda. Take "Intelligent Design" proselytizer Paula Weston, who concluded, based upon a willful misreading of Darwin, that his theory of evolution "provides fuel for racist attitudes." Her essay is enlightening as an example of argumentation based upon false premises of the sort that animates so much of the "debate" we are hearing from both sides in the wake of the President's apparent endorsement of teaching "intelligent design" alongside evolution in the nation's biology classes. Weston re Darwin's deleterious effect on the character of our fellow citizens:
This misinformed attitude is understandable if people accept the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, that the rules of the animal kingdom must apply to humans ‘because we’ve all evolved from animals’!
Neither racism -- nor the idea of evolution -- started with Darwin. Both are manifestations of basing one’s thinking on a non-biblical foundation. However, Darwin’s writings greatly fuelled racism, providing a ‘scientific’ justification for it. His book’s subtitle referred to the ‘preservation of favoured races’.
If you didn't know better, you might find that pretty damning. It also helps to be scientifically illiterate, which a recent poll suggests a lot of us are. From the other side of the divide, Sam Harris at The Huffington Post [via Ambivablog] -- like so many others putting in their two cents' worth -- uses a mischaracterization of what the President said as a springboard for his anti-religion rant:
President Bush has now endorsed the pseudo-scientific notion of "intelligent design" (ID) and declared it to be a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution.
It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum
Not. The President did not say ID was a legitimate alternative to evolution. His actual words were "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes." We didn't like the unspoken implications of his words either, of course, knowing they were vague enough to be clay in the hands of anyone who likes or doesn't like ID and/or GW. As a Darwinian Libertarian, we find the ID folks both self-deluded regarding the science and disingenuous in their "teach the controversy" spin. But that doesn't excuse willful misreading of either Darwin or Bush. And the either/or claims about religion and science are beyond the pale. Freedom to worship -- or not -- according to our conscience is one of the pillars of this "Shining City upon a Hill," fergossake. TigerHawk had the perfect answer to both sides in this unproductive shouting match in a comment to our post "Reaping the Whirlwind" a couple of months back:
Christians post Inquisition learned that science and faith could operate in different spheres. The evangelicals seem bent on re-opening this old question, and I do not think it is to the advantage of their religion or our society.
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (Charles Darwin, The Evolution of Species). Photo is from the deck of the three-masted schooner "Friendship" on that Eastern Salt harbor cruise two weeks ago, with bowsprit framing the Mystic River Bridge in the distance as we headed out of the Chelsea Creek at sundown.
We've stated our case here early and often. Here's a measured voice from the other side worth listening to, our blogfriend at Blue Goldfish:
Secular fundamentalists exhibit an intolerance for diversity of thought and theory and promote their propaganda talking points reducing faith to church -- thus allowing their faith-based world view to be integrated in the public marketplace of ideas and policy while banning the faith-based worldviews of others as "church" and -- thus -- to be separated.
Exactly. As we've said before in these pages, "it's hard to tell the difference between the fundamentalists' no-prisoners approach and that of the P.C. thought police on the other side of the cultural divide." Still, the low level of scientific literacy among our fellow Americans is troubling. We were touched at the ernest naïveté re human nature -- not unlike our own in an earlier day -- of the late Ernst Mayr, "one of the towering figures in the history of evolutionary biology," who was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, at Harvard:
No educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact. Likewise, most of Darwin's particular theses have been fully confirmed, such as that of common descent, the gradualism of evolution, and his explanatory theory of natural selection.
We guess it depends upon what your definition of "educated person" is.
Update: Speaking of "grandeur in this view of life," we've been naturally selected by the Professor for a lovely Instalanche. There IS an intelligent designer.