The Economist, Feb 7th-13th 2009
Charles Darwin ranks among scientists right at the very top with Einstein and Newton. Acceptance of his theory is depressingly low. Especially in the United States. The idea is quite simple and obvious.
The idea of evolution by natural selection is not hard to grasp. It just requires connecting some uncontentious propositions. These are that organisms vary from one another, even within a species, and that new variation can arise from time to time; that some of this variation is passed from parent to offspring; and that more individuals are born than can exist in the available space (or be sustained by the available resources). The consequence is what Darwin described in his book as a “struggle for existence”. The weakest are eliminated in this struggle. The fit survive. The survivors pass on their traits to their offspring. Over enough time, this differential transmission of characters will lead to the formation of a new species.
I should say it is obvious now, after many years of exposure to the theory and the plethora of supporting evidence. Why then, is the theory of evolution rejected by so many?
a belief in God is inversely correlated with the level of what might be described as the intensity of the struggle for existence. In countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure. A belief in God, and rejection of evolution, they suggest, is most valuable in those societies that are most subject to Darwinian pressures.
The United States seems, at least for now, an exception to this rule. Scientific understanding and an acceptance of natural explanations for speciation in this country are retarded by religion. I hope that isn’t always the case.
Despite so much evidence, evolution remains difficult to accept because it implies everything living is largely accidental. Stephen Jay Gould, an American evolutionary biologist, who died in 2002, argued that misunderstandings about Darwinism were rife not because the theory is difficult to understand but because people actively avoid trying to understand it. He thought a misunderstanding about progress was the problem.
People are comforted by the idea of a designed and harmonious natural world, with themselves at the top. It is hard to accept that such harmony has arisen as an accidental consequence of a brutal system with no principles beside the one that every individual is striving for reproductive success. It is depressing to think that life is purposeless and that evolution has no higher destination.
The theory of evolution is the bedrock of modern biology. It is sad that Charles Darwin, the amiable genius recluse, is so vilified for his contribution to it. He is a personal hero of mine. Happy birthday, Chuck.