Happy Darwin Day!

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 February 12

Today is 2009 February 12, Darwin Day, and Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. It's also Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. Lincoln was our country's greatest president. Darwin was our planet's greatest natural scientist. Why is Darwin so great? His insights into the origin and history of life--especially into the origin and history of human life--revolutionized science. Nothing in biology, anthropology, and psychology has been the same since, although it took decades, even a century, for science to catch up to Darwin. Nothing in biology, anthropology, and psychology makes sense today without Darwin's insights. That's how great he was.

The Origin of Species is not Darwin's greatest scientific book, although it is his most famous. When the Origin was published, the concept of evolution was well known and had been discussed by biologists and medical doctors for half a century. Many scientists and doctors in Darwin's day already privately accepted evolution in 1859 when the Origin was published. Darwin's book just confirmed what they already believed. The Origin also presented Darwin's hypothesis for the mechanism of evolution, natural selection. This explanation was not readily accepted in the nineteenth century, and it remained only one of several explanations until the late 1930s, when it finally became the scientific consensus, which it remains today. So the Origin's primary function was to popularize the fact of evolution for the public and to propose a mechanism for it, not to convince biological scientists.

Charles Darwin, age 31

Darwin's greatest and most important scientific book is The Descent of Man, followed immediately by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he applied the natural, material, mechanistic, thoughtless, amoral, uncaring, and relentless process of natural selection to the origin, thought processes, emotions, behavior, and morals of humans. We know the proximate, superficial characteristics of humans--our culture, education, knowledge, literature, music, art, entertainment, taste in food, wishes, and daydreams--are the result of nurturing and learning from childhood to maturity, what can be termed "cultural evolution." But the ultimate, deepest characteristics of humans--our fears, acquisitiveness, sexual desires, anger, love, caring, social cooperation, altruism, curiosity, and spiritual impulses--are now explained by evolutionary psychology, the study of human nature by the application of biological evolutionary theory.

Originally, all human behavioral and emotional characteristics were considered to be environmental and learned, but this view has been overthrown by the recent application of evolutionary psychology. The overthrow and new duality of explanation for human mind processes is still controversial and has not been easily accepted by psychologists, anthropologists, and historians, but the evidence today is too overwhelming to dismiss. And yet Darwin saw this clearly 140 years ago. He was the first to fully grasp the radical, terrifying fact that all living matter, including the human brain and therefore mind, was subject to the inanimate, uncaring, material forces of evolution, and he did not avert his gaze as did so many of his scientific contemporaries, followers, and even many scientists today. Of course, people who believe in the existence of supernaturalism or brain-mind duality will not agree with Darwin's insights about the origin of the human mind or with modern evolutionary psychology.

Charles Darwin, age 40

I love it when the Discovery Institute Creationists say they want "more evolution" taught in public schools, meaning, of course, their phony and pseudoscientific "weaknesses" of evolution. But let's really teach "more evolution" in the public schools, and tell high schoolers exactly why they and their parents are religious, believe in spirits and the supernatural, and possess all sorts of emotions and desires such as sexual lust, anger, venality, and fear of unknown humans (xenophobia, the source of homophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, etc.). These human emotions are not the work of God or Satan (which one depends on your church's theology!), but perfectly normal human behavioral attributes that can be explained today in biological terms. People are religious not because they were commanded by God to worship God, but because possessing shared beliefs about the unknown, mysteries, death, and the spirit world gave human tribes greater social coherence and thus greater reproductive success, so the behavioral characteristics were selected for.

The resistance to incorporating human mind, morals, and behavior into Darwin's materialist fold was great for the past 140 years and remains great today. Why this resistance? Hundreds of books and articles have been written to answer this question. Basically, they all have the same conclusion: human self-knowledge emotionally and psychologically prevents us from correctly perceiving and understanding our place in the natural world. We are almost unavoidable victims of self-deception, incapable of interpreting our true selves because of the very behavioral and self-reflective blocks that evolution put there in the first place. Darwin was the very first person to examine human mind without emotional blinders, rigorously and unemotionally looking deep into the human psyche from a materialist biological perspective. What he found astonished him and continues to astonish us, and we are only just now coming to scientific terms with these discoveries. In fact, Darwin is immensely greater and more important to us today than he was in his own century because of these neglected discoveries.

Charles Darwin, age 46

Our cultural and educational upbringing gives us free will over most choices we make daily, but free will is an illusion when we examine humanity's deepest instincts, emotions, and behaviors. Humans pride ourselves on the application of logic, reason, empiricism, skepticism, and free will, but these are mere veneers over an animal core of blind and ruthless instincts and desires. We try to keep the animal core in check, but the cost is immense and often that core surfaces and expresses itself in the most unfortunate and destructive ways. Failure to accept and understand that inner animal nature is always problematic, and denial of it--as most supernaturalistic American religions do--is always tragic.

Every person must understand and accept an evolutionary concept of human mind and behavior, so that one is able to recognize and control deep human urges and instincts by using one's culturally-developed moral consciousness. We do practice child abuse when we fill their heads with theistic religious fantasies and fail to teach them the scientific understanding of human evolution, because we deny them the intellectual and moral capacity to understand themselves and their behaviors in a rational and empirical way. Discussion of human evolution is suppressed in Texas schools, even in Texas colleges and universities, and the result has been generation after generation of citizens ignorant of the influences on their own behavioral possibilities and moral capacities. Do I claim this willful and socially-mandated ignorance explains the extraordinarily high crime, incarceration, and execution rates today in Texas? Absolutely.

Charles Darwin, age 51

Only by adopting a relentlessly realistic view of nature can we understand nature and the products of nature, ourselves. For example, most Americans claim their God is all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, and perfectly loving, typical attributes of the Christian God, who they further believe created the natural world and humans by some means (either evolution or Special Creation). What do we find when we examine the natural world? It is filled with pathogens, parasites, and predators that give life on Earth such a bloody and painful character. Earth contains earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods as well as bacteria and viruses that kill innocent children, not to mention sinful adults. Many kinds of pagan gods, especially ones that permit or cause cruelty and pain, are much more compatible with the reality of life on Earth than the Christian God. Reality and logic inform us that whatever God created Earth was not all-powerful, not perfectly-loving, doesn't care about human happiness, or can't stop equally powerful cruel gods from manifesting their evil work. What kind of "Godly" world is this? This "Godly" world is Hell on Earth, not the true, realistic Earth on Earth.

We humans must kill and eat other plants and animals to survive--we have no choice--so the loss of life and the pain and suffering these other plants and animals endure are facts that most humans ignore. Would this world be less cruel and arbitrary if it was the deliberate and planned creation of a God with a moral sense, especially one with the power to create a different world without the cruelty? To naturalistic realists such as myself, all the pain and suffering in nature is not cruel precisely because we consider nature and the evolutionary process that created life and species to be amoral, without forethought or planning (i.e., non-teleological). Cruelty is the conscious infliction of pain with forethought and without justification, so an unconscious and amoral system is incapable of cruelty. Nature is not cruel and also not loving precisely because it is amoral and unconscious.

What becomes, then, of our concept of God if we believe God actually created nature and life? God is presumably both conscious and moral, so the presence of cruelty in its creation is a contradiction that must be explained, yet it never has been. If the Christian God exists, then the pain, suffering, and death we endure in this world must be truly cruel, since the world was created by a cruel God that had the power to create it otherwise. We are forced to conclude that any existing God is cruel. If you don't want to believe this--and I certainly don't want to--there are so many enigmas and ineffabilities that the only possible conclusion is that there is no logical reason or evidence to believe that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly-loving type of god exists. An amoral or immoral non-Christian God capable of cruelty might exist, of course, or no god exist and nature is all that there is. There are no other possibilities. The only inescapable conclusion from the problem of evil is that the all-loving, all-powerful Christian God is a human fantasy--a projection of our fondest emotions and desires.

Charles Darwin, age 60

Other types of gods may exist, but the Christian God is eliminated on the basis of natural reality. The problem of evil, which is what I am describing, is the topic of an entire field of Christian apologetics known as theodicy. Theodicy has never been able to adequately explain the existence of natural evil within God's Creation, and this has been a stumbling block to Christian theists who are both knowledgeable and honest. Traditional defenses such as "evil is the absence of good" and "evil is a necessary consequence of free will" and "evil is necessary for the existence of a greater good" have been woefully insufficient. The problem is so enormous that individuals who wish to remain Christians must ignore the problem. Almost all do.

Some explanations are unintentionally cruel or hilarious or both, such as "evil entered the world after the Fall." The Fall is the Fall of Man that happened when Adam ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil  given to him by Eve. At that moment, Adam understood mortality, nakedness, and the concept of evil, and he and Eve were thereafter denied access to the fruit of the Tree of Life, that is, of immortality. Ignoring the misogyny, the story depicts the unfairness, arbitrariness, and cruelty of a God who condemns two innocent humans and all their descendants to eventual death and the knowledge of death for a transgression they did not and could not possibly understand since prior to the act they had no knowledge of evil, that is, no knowledge that disobeying a command of God was wrong. The concept of free will is nonsensical without a conscience. Although God described his initial Creation as "good," much redesign and re-creation would now be necessary for a world into which death had entered. The lion no longer would lay down with the lamb, but eat the lamb and the sheep, too. Presumably, at this point, prey animals were given higher reproductive rates than predators to compensate for their new mortality. Eventually, of course, even this "good" Creation would mostly be destroyed in a giant flood, so God's creation wasn't really that "good" after all. God has evidently deceived himself into thinking and stating that his Creation was "good."

Many theodicy defenses have been shown to be illogical, while reverse  arguments are claimed to demonstrate the non-existence of the Christian God. A good recent book on the problem of evil is by Bart Ehrman: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. Here is a description of the book:

Religion professor Bart Ehrman describes his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, but refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God's test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others.

In fact, the problem of evil was the reason why Charles Darwin himself lost his original Unitarian Christian faith (this combination was not a contradiction in England in Darwin's day)  in a gradual process extending over many years. The book Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution (originally published as Annie's Box in Great Britain) by Randal Keynes describes this history:

In this intimate portrait of the great naturalist as devoted family man, Keynes describes how Charles Darwin's "life and his science were all of a piece." Keynes uses published documents as well as family papers and artifacts to show how Darwin's thinking on evolution was influenced by his deep attachment to his wife and children. In particular, his anguish over his 10-year-old daughter Annie's death sharpened his conviction that the operation of natural laws had nothing to do with divine intervention or morality. Keynes shows that much of Darwin's intellectual struggle in writing On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man arose from his efforts to understand the role of suffering and death in the natural order of the world. Early in his career, Darwin saw the indifference of natural law as an answer to the era's religious doubts about how a benevolent god could permit human misery; cruelty and pain, he argued, should not be seen as moral issues, but as inevitable outcomes of nature. After Annie's death, however, Darwin's views darkened, and in a private letter he railed against the "clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!"

Thus, Darwin correctly realized that either nature was the work of a cruel Creator God, a God who was all-powerful but not all-good, or nature was totally natural and therefore amoral and not cruel; every other option is illogical. Darwin did not want to believe in a cruel God, so he gradually became a nontheist. The same path has been followed by many, many other intellectuals. Fideist reasons to keep believing in a simultaneously perfectly-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful god are absurd, since one must abandon one's rational, empirical, and skeptical cognitive capacities to do this. Fideism has justly been described as intellectually irresponsible, although several famous philosophers (Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and William James) and writers (C. S. Lewis and Martin Gardner) have indulged in it.

Charles Darwin, age 72

There will always be tension between biological evolution and orthodox Christian religionists who are both knowledgeable and honest. However, evolutionary science is completely compatible with many other religions as well as with Christians who are willing to give up some traditional Christian beliefs, such as their God being all-powerful or all-good. Many have done this, in fact, although they probably don't widely advertise their non-orthodox beliefs. Some have adopted a Manichaean philosophy, which has Gnostic origins and was perhaps Europe's most popular Christian heresy during the Middle Ages; it was ruthlessly suppressed by the Inquisition. Manichaeism is dualistic and denies the existence of a single omnipotent good power. Instead, it deliberately addresses the problem of evil and posits the existence of two morally opposing spiritual forces.

Another well-known solution was offered by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his very popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which has reportedly given comfort to many people visited by tragedy. Kushner's book deals directly with the problem of evil; he wrote it to deal with his own young child's fatal illness. Unlike Darwin in an identical circumstance, Kushner could not give up his theism. His solution is that God is not all-powerful (omnipotent), and so cannot prevent every bad thing (but presumably would if He could). I know little of Jewish theology, so I don't know if lack of omnipotence is a theologically sanctioned description of the Jewish God. I do know that claiming the Christian God is not omnipotent is a heresy. My question is why Rabbi Kushner didn't conclude that, instead of not being all-powerful, God is rather not perfectly-loving or all-knowing, since the absence of any one of the three major divine attributes of God would provide a solution to the problem of evil. Of course, if you deny God any one of the three divine attributes, it is easy to deny Him a second, and if you do that, you might as well deny Him the third, too, at which point you don't have a god at all. That is why denying the Christian God any divine attribute is a heresy, thus necessitating the Christian philosophical tradition of theodicy. Manichaeans, Hindus, Buddhists, and apparently Jews have no need for theodicy. Of course, nonbelievers, humanists, and atheists have no need for theodicy, either.

For ontological naturalists and materialists, which is the case for most scientists, there is no problem of evil. Evil is just the result of immoral and sometimes moral human acts, both perfectly natural modes of human behavior. Until the majority of citizens, Christians included, accept the fact of evolution and how this affects human behavior and human morality, we will continue to have social problems due to the cognitive dissonance between human culture and human nature.

Happy Darwin Day!


Last updated: 2009 April 2