Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving with Darwin

Charles Darwin's Bible

Roy Edroso takes an entertaining look at how Rightbloggers Fight War on Thanksgiving (And, Of Course, Muslim Obama) Village Voice 11/26/09. I didn't know that there was a mythical War on Thanksgiving along with the equally fictional War on Christmas. But why not? When you need something to be afraid of and are used to creating phantoms in the air, I guess one is as good as the other.

Darwin doesn't actually have anything to do with Thanksgiving. Though we can be thankful for his work, since he theory of natural selection forms a huge part of the basis of present-day science. But Edward J. Larson has a good piece out this week on the sometimes-uncomfortable meeting of Darwinism and Christianity, "I Had No Intention to Write Atheistically": Darwin, God, and the 2500-Year History of the Debate Religion Dispatches 11/24/09.

Darwin was open to the notion early on that humanity as well as other animal species could have evolved on a natural basis, a process that could be explained without resorting to divine intervention.


Alluding to William Paley’s analogy between a crafted telescope and the human eye, which was a key part of the Anglican theologian’s famous proof of an intelligent designer behind organic creation. Darwin then added, “Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressing designed.” Even human nature and mental ability might result from natural processes, he concluded.

The sequence in Darwin’s letter to Gray is telling. It passed quickly from observations of what seemed bad in nature (such as cruel animal behavior, which even devout creationists hesitate to blame on God) to ones about what seemed good in nature (such as the human eye, which Victorians typically credited to God), and then moved on to ponder the origin of what seemed best of all, human morality and mentality, which natural theologians typically hail as the ultimate gift and proof of the divine supernatural. In Origin of Species, Darwin avoided making comments about human evolution, fearing that they would prejudice readers against his general theory, but his private notes, essays, and letters reveal his longstanding fascination with the issue.
While the article is very good in describing the history of this conflict, I don't really like the next-to-last section "Humans are Survival Machines" in which he writes, "Today, Darwin’s sketchy social theories have matured by way of E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology and modern evolutionary psychology to become foundational for understanding in the social sciences." Uh, no, "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" are nothing but cleaned-up terms for Social Darwinism, which is certainly not "foundational for understanding in the social sciences" or for understanding anything but Social Darwinism. The arguments that go by those terms are barely-updated versions of Victorian-era arguments that the current "traditional values" hierarchies of gender, class and (if you look closely) race are rooted in immutable biology. And it's hard to imagine that Darwin wouldn't have been embarrassed to see the sloppy, speculative reasoning that underpins most of their arguments.

What we've come to call fundamentalism, the notion that the Christian Bible should be read as though it were a history and science text, was also a 19th-century phenomenon like Darwinism. But it wasn't only in opposition to the theory of evolution and new astronomical and geological discoveries that it developed. Especially in Germany, scholars like David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) were analyzing the Scriptures with new historical and linguistic methods. Strauss' Life of Jesus (1835-1836) argued that the New Testament did not actually describe Jesus as God in human form, which is the basic Christian notion of the Incarnation.

The whole concept of history as describing accurately and analyzing the procession of actual events that took place was one that began developing with the modern age in 15th-century Europe and took centuries to establish itself as a more general understanding. (Keith Thomas describes some of this process in the print edition of the New York Review of Books, "Fighting over History" 12/03/09 edition) So those who felt uncomfortable with the religious implications of the historical-critical method of seeking to understand the Bible - a method which was by no means linked exclusively to atheism or strict materialist philosophy - began to articulate an understanding of the Bible that redefined it in more literalist terms than had been common among Christians before that.

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