February 12th, 18009 was the birthday of two of the most extraordinary men history has known, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. It is one of those coincidences that astrologers love and even sensible people make more of than it is worth. Newsweek even had a major article pitting them against one another as to which had the more significant impact upon subsequent history, one of the more futile questions to which they have addressed themselves. Lincoln's legacy today is questioned only by the outer fringe of the southern heritage fanatics. Darwin's is still in contention, though not by those who have the smallest understanding of his work. The arguments against it, though shown to hold no water time and again, still convince more than half of the American people. And yet, his theory is so compelling that it has, in subtle ways, entered the consciousness even of those most determined against it. It is a real part of popular culture.
In 1925 one of the most famous and most ridiculous trials on public record was held in Dayton, Tennessee, where John Scopes was tried for teaching the theory of evolution contrary to Tennessee law. At the urging of the ACLU he agreed to put himself forward as having committed a crime that he wasn't actually certain he had perpetrated. He didn't actually remember having done so, but he would have if the opportunity had arisen, so he allowed himself to become the sacrificial animal. And he certainly was that. William Jennings Bryan, the greatest orator and populist of the day appeared against him saying completely indefensible things, and none of the evidence that the defense advanced was found to be admissible. Darrow himself, head of the defense team told the jury that on the evidence they were allowed to hear they had no option but to find Scopes guilty. Tennessee became the laughingstock of the scientific world and the law that Scopes may or may not have broken was finally repealed some forty years later.
Only fifteen years after the trial though, in Disney's classic, Fantasia, evolution is the unquestioned assumption of the artist's vision of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring". Although we have no way of darkening the room, I think you can see enough of the first movement of this lovely work.
Actually, although it is, as is the whole film, beautifully done, I think Disney's vision failed him in this portion of his work. Certainly the springtime of the world was violent, and certainly death is as much an aspect of evolution as sex, it seems to me that the most erotic piece of classical music ever written was ill-served by the heavy emphasis on death. The last movement, which gave me nightmares as a child, was the death of the dinosaurs, showing them slogging across a burning desert, starving, but no longer with even the strength to consume one another. However, their death was a part of the evolution of life on earth, and their fossilized remains have been a difficult hurdle for the anti-evolutionists to get over.
Whenever I read the statistics of those who refuse to believe in the theory of evolution I am left in a state of both amazement and fear. I am fearful of the future of a culture in which the findings of science, findings that have been supported over and over again in rigorous research, can be dismissed so easily. One of the most beautiful thoughts in President Obama's inaugural address was his promise to restore science to its rightful place of respect. I don't know if it can be done, but it certainly needs to be done. I don't know how science is being taught in our schools or if it is being taught at all (of course it is, but it seems to make little or no impact) but there seems to be very little understanding of the scientific method or the role of evidence in the search for truth.
Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published one hundred fifty years ago, and although it has been much refined over the years it remains in its essence the only scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. There is no other. Evolution, scientifically speaking, is it. The only other explanations are based on religious belief. And yet the numbers of those who practice willful ignorance, refusing acceptance of it, far outpaces the number of Biblical literalists. There are even many Catholics who are unaware that their hierarchy, having learned a hard lesson from their silencing of Galileo, teaches that the theory of evolution is not contrary to Catholic doctrine. They seem to simply assume that if you are religious you can't believe that human beings developed from a less than human ancestor, and if you trace it back far enough, from a common ancestor with other simians. I can't even understand that. All you have to do is watch them and you can't help but believe that the apes are definitely our cousins. Actually, I don't know why the anti-evolutionists are so determined to introduce the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design into our curriculum to counteract the teaching of evolution. Obviously if we're teaching evolution it hasn't made much impact.
Belief in Intelligent Design can, in fact, be quite respectable. It is certainly possible to believe that there is an intelligence that began and continues to direct the process of evolution, although for me the evidence indicates that in that case the designer wasn't always that intelligent. However, the Intelligent Design curricula that are offered are simply creationism under another name, insisting that human beings arose de novo as a special creation of the divine being who first created the earth. When scientists argue against the introduction of such a curriculum, their response is that after all, they are both simply theories, and shouldn't students be exposed to all the thinking on the subject? Again we see the depth of the ignorance that doesn't even realize that a scientific theory is a far different thing from an intuitive hypothesis or an ancient teaching. A scientific theory, as I carefully explained to someone who gave me that argument (someone who wanted me to vote for a school board candidate who had expressed his support for the inclusion of the teaching of intelligent design) is based on evidence, research and replicable experiment, solidly based on fact rather than guesswork or hearsay, and stands only as long as the facts support it. Any other kind of theory is not science, and science teachers should not be expected to teach it. Actually, he responded that that was a valid argument, and that's the first and perhaps the last time in my life that I have gotten that heart-warming response. It made my day. Maybe my week.
However, there is another issue that is worrying me lately. It is not as important, I suppose as a continuing abysmal ignorance in the society at large that we seem unable to reverse, but it touches us much more closely. That is the tendency I have seen lately to turn the processes of nature themselves into a kind of idolatry. I suspect it is in part a good faith response to Unitarian Universalist President Bill Sinkford's call for a language of reverence for our faith. It raised a certain amount of indignation at the time, a perhaps his were not the best-couched arguments for his suggestion, but he was taken very seriously. Leading humanist Bill Murray wrote a book called Reason and Reverence, and David Bumbaugh who is just retiring from his position on the faculty of our seminary Meadville-Lombard has given talks and written papers on a language of reverence for humanists, and both of them, it has seemed to me, have gone over the edge in calling for a kind of worship of our present understanding of the way that nature works. There is a couple whom we have had as guest speakers here who celebrate evolution as the highest religious value. I will admit that nature is often beautiful to our perceptions and certainly awe-inspiring. The procession of the seasons, the whirling of the planets and the dance of the stars, the way in which the multiplicity of life forms live together in a balanced ecology, all these things are matter for wonder and joy. However, beauty awe, wonder and joy do not a religion make, nor do they necessarily delineate a path to the divine. Darwin took a very long time to publish his findings even after he was convinced of their truth, and one of the reasons for that was that he wasn't terribly happy about them himself. They seemed to him, they seem to many of the deniers to take away from humankind the dignity of purpose, the meaningfulness of our lives, and that is the whole religious mission - to discern and serve whatever purpose there may be.
Life in nature, as Disney so eloquently showed us, is about survival, natural selection, nature red in tooth and claw. Its only purpose seems to be to survive as long as one can - and to survive we and all others must consume other living things - and to create more of ourselves. The changes in species are driven by survival needs and reproductive facility. I see no meaning and no purpose in simple survival. I am, of course, in favor of it, I just don't find it a matter for reverence.
It is arguable that they are right, that that is our only purpose, and for them it is sufficient to create the virtues that we serve as religious people, but to me there is something more that I cannot find in the impartiality of nature. A commitment to the good beyond survival even of our species, to honor, to truth, to integrity, to justice and to love, whether in that commitment our survival as a species or as individuals is enhanced or not gives purpose to our lives.