Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos.
Ideas have consequences, and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is an idea that has had momentous consequences for society. “Darwinian theory is a scientific theory…but that is not all it is,” writes philosopher Daniel Dennett. “Darwin’s dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves.”1
According to the modern version of Darwin’s theory, all living things ultimately evolved from one simple ancestral form through a process of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations and recombinations of genes.
Darwin’s theory fueled three big ideas with significant consequences for humanity.
Just Another Animal
The first idea was that humans are not unique.
Darwin himself recognized that his theory diminished the case for human uniqueness, writing in one of his notebooks that “it is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another.”2 He also complained that “people often talk of the wonderful event of intellectual Man appearing” when, in fact, “the appearance of insects with other senses is more wonderful.”3
Darwinian biologists today relish emphasizing that humans are just another animal. Biologist Charles Zuker says humans “are nothing but a big fly.”4 Geneticist Glen Evans claims that “the worm represents a very simple human.”5 A science journalist writes that “there isn’t much difference between mice and men.”6 And the late Morris Goodman of Wayne State University argued that humans are “only slightly remodeled chimpanzee-like apes.”7
Darwinian social theorists across the political spectrum make similar claims. John Derbyshire, formerly a writer with the conservative magazine National Review, argues approvingly that “the broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of HUMAN EXCEPTIONALISM…To modern biologists, informed by Darwin, we are merely another branch on Nature’s tree.”8 Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer, a political progressive and author of A Darwinian Left, agrees. In Singer’s words, Darwin “showed…that we are simply animals. Humans had imagined we were a separate part of Creation, that there was some magical line between Us and Them. Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.”9
Survival Right Now
A second big idea fueled by Darwinism was that nature is the product of an unguided process. As Darwin himself made clear, natural selection is an unintelligent process that is blind to the future: “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”10 Natural selection cannot select new features based on some future goal. It only favors traits that are beneficial to survival right now. Consequently, evolution by natural selection is “the result of an unguided, unplanned process,” to cite the words of dozens of Nobel laureates who issued a statement defending Darwin’s theory in 2005.11
According to Darwinism, amazing biological features such as the vertebrate eye, or the wings of butterflies, or the blood-clotting system are in no way the purposeful result of evolution. They are unintended byproducts of the interplay between chance (random mutations) and necessity (natural selection). The same holds true for higher animals such as human beings. In the words of late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”12 In the Darwinian worldview, human beings are accidents of natural history, not the purposeful creations of a loving creator.
Death as the Creator
A third big idea fueled by Darwin’s theory is that the engine of progress in the history of life is mass death. Instead of believing that the remarkable features of humans and other living things reflect the intelligent design of a master artist, Darwin portrayed death and destruction as our ultimate creator. As he wrote at the end of his most famous work: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”13
For more than 150 years, these three Darwinian ideas have shaped social beliefs and actions in virtually every sphere of human life, including race relations, medicine, environmentalism, criminal justice, ethics, and religion.
- Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 18.
- Paul Barrett et. al., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), “Notebook B,” #74, 189.
- Barrett et al., Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, #207, 222-223.
- Quoted in Robert Lee Hotz, “Full Sequence of Fly’s Genes Deciphered,” Los Angeles Times (March 24, 2000), https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-mar-24-mn-12253-story.html (accessed November 24, 2020).
- Quoted in Maggie Fox, “Fly Gene Map May Have Many Uses, Scientists Say,” Reuters (March 23, 2000), http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20000323/sc/fly_uses_2.html (accessed April 3, 2000).
- Patricia Reaney, “Are You Man or Mouse? Check Your Genes…,” Reuters (December 4, 2002), http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story2&cid=570&u=/nm/20021204/ (accessed December 4, 2003).
- Derek E. Wilman, Monica Uddin, Guozhen Liu, Lawrence Grossman, and Morris Goodman, “Implications of natural selection in shaping 99.4% nonsynonymnous DNA identity between humans and chimpanzees: Enlarging genus Homo,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(June 10, 2003), 7181-7188. Goodman is identified as the contributor of this article to Proceedings.
- John Derbyshire, “What’s So Scary About Evolution? — for Both Right and Left, a Lot,” Taki’s Magazine (May 19, 2008), http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Opinions/HumanSciences/darwin.html (accessed November 24, 2020), emphasis in original.
- Quoted in Johann Hari, “Peter Singer — an Interview,” originally run in The Independent (January 7, 2004), https://web.archive.org/web/20060317041348/http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=410 (accessed November 24, 2020).
- Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, with Original Omissions Restored (New York: Norton, 1969), 87.
- Letter from Nobel Laureates to Kansas State Board of Education (September 9, 2005), https://web.archive.org/web/20051103170647/http://media.ljworld.com/pdf/2005/09/15/nobel_letter.pdf (accessed November 24, 2020).
- George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man. rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 345.
- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1st ed. (London, UK: John Murray, 1859), 490.