“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars…”
Charles Darwin, The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887)
In Victorian England an idealized view of nature was dominant, where all animals were thought to be made in perfection by an all-wise god, who allotted functional characteristics to them according to the roles he had predetermined. Darwin was born in this environment, in a world where the majority of the population thought the Earth was less than 10,000 years old, as that’s what the Bible stories add up to. It is no accident that his ideas were controversial and still find resistance from history deniers and are also pirated and altered by some who want to justify their own agendas.
Was Darwin’s idea actually dangerous? Darwin himself lost his faith as he was formulating in his mind the way species mutate and evolve in time, without the need of a cosmic designer, without providence, without an end goal. Raised in a religious environment and destined to be a priest, during his voyage with the H.M.S. Beagle, a journey definitive in guiding him to his theory, he remained attached to the scriptures. But after the 5 year sail and by studying his own findings, he could not reconcile the violence and misery he witnessed in the wildlife with the idea of a loving god. A particular effect haunted him; a wasp which, instead of killing a caterpillar when stinging it, would actually paralyze it, so that the wasp’s offspring would have fresh meat to eat when born inside the prey, devouring it from the inside out. The caterpillar was conscious as this happened but, since paralyzed, could not do anything about it. How could a loving god force this kind of misery to one of its creations? By 1859, Darwin had become a non-believer, calling himself an agnostic in his autobiography.
Wanting to avoid the conflict his theory would undoubtedly kindle, he delayed its publication for almost 20 years. Besides, he didn’t want to upset his beloved wife Emma, a deeply religious woman, especially after the tragic event of their daughter passing away at 10 years of age, in 1851. What motivated him to publish On the Origin of Species was the fact that a colleague of his, Alfred Wallace, had reached to the same conclusion (a theory of evolution through natural selection) through independent research. Wanting to take the lead, he published his book in 1859, but avoided mentioning the evolution of humans in particular. The book sold 1,250 copies in just 2 days and launched the fame of the already acclaimed Darwin to a status of both reverence and hatred.
The reactions were mixed, with scientists and nature-worshipers largely accepting the groundbreaking theory, and clerics either condemning it or accepting it in part, agreeing that species evolved, but only through the guidance of God. Conflicts took place in journals, brochures, books and debates, but defenders of the theory were only colleagues and acquaintances of Darwin’s. He himself, described as a quiet man, old and weak by then, could not stand up to defend his work, but chose rather to continue his research of plants and worms, where his vision and talents flourished once more. By the time he died, the theory of evolution was for the most part already accepted as the most complete description of the diversity and similarities of living organisms found in nature. His body was buried besides Isaac Newton’s and John Herschel’s, in 1882, while clerics praised his morality, virtue and tenacity. His once radical idea was by now part of the status quo, and all it took was 23 years. The most powerful idea ever to be thought, had won.
But some didn’t want the theory of evolution to be constricted to the world of biology. The philosopher Herbert Spencer, influenced by Thomas Malthus and his study on the dangerous overpopulation of Earth, maintained that Darwin’s analysis on how nature works, should give us the guidelines of how economics and policy making should. It was the first time the idea of “social Darwinism”, as it was later named, took form. Spencer was the one who coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest”, and claimed that intelligence was inherited, just like long ears or nimble fingers were. He came to the conclusion that, with a series of wise marriages, a particularly gifted race of humans could be created. This thought was brought to completion by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, who is considered the father of eugenics, a social theory that preaches for the betterment of the human race by selected breeding of people who have certain genetic characteristics, and prevention of reproduction of people who don’t. It is a theory that, besides being morally reprehensible, ignores the effect of nurture for the advancing of a person, relying only on genetic predisposition. Eugenics was tried in Nazi Germany with voluntary and involuntary sterilizations and euthanasia procedures on people with special needs, but also in America since the beginning of the 20th century, resulting to dozens of thousands of sterilizations (of the indigenous, the gypsies, the disabled…) up to the 70s, as well as in Japan, Sweden and elsewhere.
Social Darwinism found a following in the world of management. In Enron, each year, the lower 15% of employees in productivity were fired, in order for the energy, commodities and services company to evolve by gradually acquiring the most efficient employees. The plan failed as, instead of attracting the most capable candidates, it absorbed the most ruthless ones, with the well known effects of corporate fraud, followed by Enron’s bankruptcy and the dissolution of a major accounting company.
But is this reading of evolutionary theory rightly attributed to Darwin? Does eugenics arise from his work? In the financial world it seems like Darwin’s theory and the erroneously credited to him phrase “survival of the fittest/stronger” are used as an excuse by the corporatists to be shamelessly unrelenting, as if their way is nature’s way. Social benefits such as free medical care and social welfare are labeled unnatural, a way for the unfit and the losers to be allowed to reproduce and drag down society along with them.
And as for eugenics, it is simply an application of heredity in a social machination of political agendas. Every measure ever adapted in the context of eugenics, is only what humans have been doing for millennia on plants and dogs, long before anyone could speak of Darwinism. Darwin wrote of random mutations in the genome of every generation and of natural selection as a deciding factor on which one of those will prevail. Eugenics speaks of reproducing desired (by whom?) traits, through voluntary or involuntary breeding of two humans with said traits. In a letter to his cousin, Darwin wrote: “I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work” (More Letters vol.2) So it seems that Darwin gives emphasis to nurture and personal choices rather than just genetic predisposition. In The Descent of Man he wrote that his cousin’s eugenic ideas (although eugenics were given its name a lot later) were utopian and had posed himself against government intervention, putting responsibility of heredity on the individual, when choosing a partner.
The evolutionary theory gives us a view of nature that seems cruel, violent, even fatalistic, but also hints on the reasons for altruistic behavior we can observe in the wildlife; describing it as a necessary ingredient of adaptation and survival of organisms, especially social animals. By the 1930s, the discipline of ethology, the scientific, objective study of animal behavior, had begun. The biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene describes how genes manage to survive and reproduce only if they manifest a moral character in their carrier, comprised of empathy, trust, gratitude and reciprocity. Without such traits, animals that don’t have powerful means of protection and self-reliance (like humans don’t) would never be able to survive long-term. We could not have created social groups without having embedded in us feelings that make cooperation and the sense of social cohesion possible. We tend to not oppose the notion that certain negative feelings, like fear (of heights, snakes, darkness…), and repelling sensations (e.g. against the smell of rotting flesh that protects us against food poisoning) can be explained evolutionary, as protection mechanisms. Why do we oppose the same mechanism giving us positive feelings, like an instinctive morality? With Darwin, there was finally a theory to explain the origin of ethics, an area thought to be exclusive property of religion and philosophy, never to be approached by science.
Darwin’s conclusions offered a strong alternative to the only, until then, “explanation” of the origins of men and animals: intelligent design. His theory, simple and whole, made it possible to contest the religious dogma of creation and the divine parentage of morality. And if we haven’t yet explained everything about the mystery of life, he made it obvious that everything is explainable. What is necessary and sufficient is the scientific method. And if to some his theory looks bleak and miserable, it doesn’t make it any less true. To have an open mind is to be ready to set aside our imagination when faced with evidence, even if it doesn’t suit us or if we don’t like it. But the evolutionary story is surely not a bleak one. It is an elegant one, which illustrates how a simple form of life creates a complex organism, without the necessity of outsider aid. It’s a story that shows that it is not the stronger who survives, nor the smartest. The organism that survives is the most adaptable to changes.
Darwin is one of the greatest emancipators of mankind, if not the greatest.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
- Charles Darwin – The Descent Of Man
- Charles Darwin – Autobiography
- Pat Shipman – The Evolution of Racism
- Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene
- Wikipedia – Charles Darwin
- Wikipedia – Eugenics
- Wikipedia – Social Darwinism
- Richard Dawkins – The Genious Of Charles Darwin (2008)
- PBS – What Darwin Never Knew (2009)