RSS

From Descartes to Darwin

23 Dec

Darwin was wrong. So was Jesus. And Einstein. And Plato. And that weird dude from 7-11 that you told gave you the wrong change but he insisted that donuts were no longer on sale. Maybe not about that specific issue, but he was at least partially at fault. You were wrong, too. It’s nothing to be afraid of… in fact, quite the opposite. We cannot allow fear of being wrong to dissuade us from offering up ideas. And similarly, we have to ignore anyone who tries to shut us up because what we said wasn’t spot-on accurate. Christians should understand this concept quite readily. After all, their favorite authors have things like this to answer to:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.” Timothy 2:12
“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us / He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” 1 Peter 2:18

Christians have a lot to answer for if they fail to recognize that a document can be imperfect. They seem to be less excited, however, about providing any kind of leniency to Charles Darwin. First off, we have to consider why nonbelievers are beholden to Charles Darwin at all. My theory—and I could be wrong—is that religious folk can’t wrap their head around the concept that atheists don’t take their marching orders from a single individual. I’m not talking about God—even within the monotheistic faiths they make the claim that God is not a single individual. I’m talking about Jesus. Mohammed. David. Siddhartha. Zarathustra. Kim Il-Sung. Religions are formed by cultures, by hundreds of years of development, but are often credited to a single individual.

To fit that custom, many are tempted to consider atheists followers of Darwinism. The fact of the matter, though, is that nobody thought Darwin was on to anything even when he was alive. He wasn’t persecuted like Jesus or Peter were, his contemporaries just thought he was wrong. He was also late to the party—exactly fifty years before Origin of the Species was published, French Zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published Zoological Philosophy, which amongst other things scientifically proved that the theory of evolution by mutation was bullshit. Lamarck’s main theory was much simpler: if the only food is ten feet above the ground, the long-necked giraffe will eat and the short-necked giraffe will die, and that’s why the world doesn’t have any short-necked giraffes. Lamarck’s ideas, what we now refer to as “survival of the fittest,” were absolutely right, but they weren’t sexy. And as we’ve discussed before, for philosophy to survive, it has to be sexy. It also failed to answer the important question: where did the long-necked giraffe come from in the first place, if not from God?

Lemarck was too French to suggest that any of this was possible without God. French weren’t too big on being not Catholic. One of the great pioneers of atheist thought, Descartes, was French, and spent his entire life fighting off accusations that he was anything other than Roman Catholic. In fact, while we all know his most famous line, the cogito, few know the context in which he said it. “I think, therefore I am,” was Descartes defense against those who accused him of denying the existence of God. His argument:

If we cannot believe in God, we can not be sure of anything at all. But I am sure of at least one thing: I exist. I am.

In other words, there must be a God, or we wouldn’t even be here. This, from the founder of modern rationalism. Such is the religious pressure of the land of Jean d’Arc.

England, however, was much more secular, as happens when your state religion is based off an old King’s desire to get with his booty call, and there were many influential philosophers, writers, and scientists who made incredible discoveries free of the pressure of conforming to dogma. One of the most important was Alfred Russel Wallace, a hard working biologist who had been able to show a clear connection between animals and the place they lived, leading to the conclusion that animals who were a natural fit for their own environment survived, while animals who were a poor fit for their environment died. It was simple, obvious, and irrefutable. But it wasn’t sexy.

No, the sexy came from a rich, young adventurer with mad mutton chops by the name of Charles R. Darwin.

Charles Darwin, or as I like to call him, Chuck D, didn’t spend quite as much time proving his theories as Alfred Wallace, and his theories were not as sound as Lamarckism, but they were sexy. Lamarck’s world was that of rimmed glasses and pocket protectors. It wasn’t cool to be a Lamarckist. But Darwin talked about things like turtles crossing the Atlantic, and mutant butterflies outsmarting their monstrous prey. Darwin’s world was that of X-men and underdogs. Sex-y. Unfortunately, Darwin didn’t really have all the data he needed to support his theory, but he had to get published quickly or Alfred Wallace would beat him to the punch, so he released Origin of the Species, and history was made.

His discoveries were all the rage in the 1860s, when Darwin was the old, long-bearded man that we all think of today, and his thoughts inspired an entire generation of young biologists, attracted to the idea that any of us could sprout wings at any moment, or that every time a lizard had children, any one of them could be a dragon. Of course, that’s bullshit, and we all know it, but it’s sexy. It’s fun to think about.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Darwin’s theories were only popular for about forty years, until Mendel was able to prove the existence of genetics. From that point on, we realized that Darwin’s idea of transmutation and traveling turtles was, essentially, wrong, and while the theory of evolution is often credited to his name, he was by no means the first person to come up with the idea, and in fact there were contemporaries of his that were even more on base but just didn’t have his business sense, and ultimately, Darwin’s work was obsolete in less than a single generation.

And this is what sets rationalists and fundamentalists apart. Rationalists aren’t looking for someone to follow. They aren’t looking for a club to join so that other people will know they’re going to heaven. They’re just concerned with the Truth. And in our search for the truth, we’re always coming up with new ideas and new theories, and challenging the ones we already have. Sometimes, as with Descartes, we have to consider the context in which their beliefs are expressed. Other times, as with Darwin, we have to take what we can from it and use that as a launchpad to move on to more accurate and useful theories down the road.

When Christian fundamentalists mock the concept of Darwinism, dismissing the idea that monkeys are turning into humans, they’re absolutely correct. The idea that a monkey will spontaneously mutate into a thinking human being is the primitive mindset of people hundreds of years ago, the kind of idea that people would enjoy for thirty years or so before they grow up and start searching for more serious answers.

That’s why, despite their popularity 150 years ago, there just aren’t a whole lot of serious Darwinists around anymore. Because we rationalists kind of think that believing something that someone professed generations ago which has since been roundly disproven is, well, stupid. It’s what we’ve been trying to tell you people for years.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “From Descartes to Darwin

  1. Andrew Kern

    April 2, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I enjoyed your read and you have some interesting perspectives, but I could hardly describe this post as a triumph of rationalistic thought. You need to break through your caricatures.

     

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: