On the Impact of Darwin

On the Impact of Darwin

This year celebrates the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. It is also the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his scientific classic, On the origin of Species. During these hundred and fifty years, more pages have been penned on Darwin and his work than perhaps on most other scientists and theirs works: more perhaps than Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein, more certainly than Leonhard Euler, Michel Faraday, or Heinrich Hertz whose contributions have touched the core of science and altered the course of history no less.

The reason for this is that Darwin’s discovery touches our self-appraisal as beings in the universe far more profoundly than Jovian satellites, gravitation, or the curvature of cosmic space, more directly than differential equations, electromagnetic induction, or the transmission of electromagnetic waves. The only time such a jolt had occurred before was when the Copernican discovery summarily kicked our habitat from the prestigious center of the universe, and transformed it into an insignificant speck in a vast and silent expanse. Darwin’s work removed us from the pedestal wherein we were seen as the crowing jewel in God’s creation. In the view of some it not only mercilessly reduced us to just another of the countless life-forms that crowd the earth, but also revealed our lineage to be simian rather then saintly, or as one wit quipped, we are nor not so much the apex as the ex-ape of creation.

It is both biological and cultural to regard oneself as the center of the universe. The sun seems to rise and set from our perspective, we evaluate the world and react to changes with self-preservation as the bottom line. So it is not surprising that practically every religion gives a special place to humanity among the plethora of life forms. Other creatures, bereft of language and scale of values, have never protested this presumption in any biological court of law. Darwin’s suggestion that we were not molded by clay, nor fashioned on the sixth day, nor come into being from the mind of God, as reported in religious mythopoesie, but that we just emerged as a result of slow changes over the eons, like so many other sister-species, not only belies assertions in sacred texts, it also seems to trivialize Homo sapiens, and certainly appears to take away all sanctity from this special-to-God creature.

It is both understandable and legitimate for traditionalists to resist the Darwinian view of anthropogenesis not only as an affront to human dignity but also as assault on the religious framework. There are at least three ways of reacting to this predicament. One is to declare cold-bloodedly that the religions are dead wrong on this matter, as they are on many other issues pertaining to the phenomenal world. The other is to proclaim that that since the scriptures (revelations by God Almighty) cannot, by definition, by wrong, it is Darwin who has been misled by superficialities which hide the true essence of things, and must therefore be rejected, or at best, be accepted as just another theory formulated by the finite human mind which can never fathom the Ultimate Infinite Mystery. The third alternative has been to find a reasonable via media by recognizing the role and relevance of religion as an important and meaningful cultural and spiritual experience, and also interpreting religious texts in symbolic and metaphorical rather than in literal modes, while maintaining the integrity of science and its methodology. The oft-mentioned warfare between science and religion is between the ardent protagonists of the first two schools while members of the third group write such books as “How one can be a good Christian/Hindu/Jew/Buddhist/Muslim etc. and also subscribe to Darwin and evolution.”

My own suspicion is that the first two groups, in their own belligerent ways, are perhaps closer to their truths, but the third course is the best for a peaceful world where science can flourish and religiously inclined people can find fulfillment also. This approach is difficult for those who see every aspect of the human condition in black-and-white terms: a point of view, which inevitably leads to intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry, when taken to the extreme. But it is the only way by which we can handle this situation which may seem quite simple from the perspective of die-hard rationaltry (worship of the Goddess of Reason alone) or mindless faith, but which is enormously complex in the context of human emotions, culture, sensibilities, and psychology.

With all the problems that have emerged from the Darwinian Pandora’s Box, it is appropriate for enlightened humanity to pay homage to the name and memory of a scientific searcher who relentlessly pursued his quest and uncovered one of the great mysteries of the phenomenal world, namely, the emergence, continuance, and extinction of countless species with an incredible range of properties and propensities that adorn our planet, and of which we ourselves happen to be among the more remarkable ones. It is no less enriching to regard ourselves as one culminating end-point in the complex web of life that has been unleashed on the planet by the marvelous laws of nature, with potential for further change, than to imagine ourselves to be the most wonderful creation of the Cosmic Creative Principle that many choose to worship as God

V. V. Raman

12 February 2009


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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