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Friday, February 13, 2009

The essential point.

Some of you may be wondering why, despite my oft mentioned interest in evolutionary theory, I did not make a big to-do out of Darwin's birthday yesterday. This day, known informally as "Darwin Day," would seem to be a perfect opportunity for me to crow about how important evolution is to modern science, and to castigate creationists.* Yet, despite the celebratory atmosphere at a number of places- including, believe it or not, Scatterplot- I did not recognize the anniversary of the birth of one of the most influential scientists of our time.

So what the hell was up with that?

I declined to blog about Darwin on Darwin Day for a very simple and, I like to think, important reason: evolution is not about Darwin. Let me say that again: evolution is not about Darwin.

You see, in my on and off battles with creationists, including the intelligent design dunderheads, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat Darwin as synonymous with evolution. Indeed, ID folks love to refer to "Darwinism" rather than evolutionary theory. Likewise, I have seen attempts to construct SAT style analogy problems that look a little like this:

Jesus Christ is to Christianity as ___________ is to Atheism:

a. Thomas Aquinas
b. Charles Darwin
c. Agatha Christie
d. Your Mom


As you might guess, the answer many creationists imagine to be correct is in bold. I believe that it is this mistaken equation of Darwin with atheism and, by extension, evolution that explains Conservapedia's absurd article on evolution. In their world, by leading the article with a picture of Joseph Stalin and including more pictures of him and Adolf Hitler than Darwin, they are discrediting the theory. Indeed, I have previously remarked upon the efforts of some creationists to portray Darwin as a man who enjoyed beating puppies.** The logic is simple ad hominem: attack the man and the argument is destroyed by association.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter if Darwin was a nice guy or not. It doesn't matter if he liked to abuse animals, was horribly racist, or called his wife a cunt.*** Evolutionary theory is not a guide to moral action, evolution is not an ethical system, evolution is a proposed account for the diversity of life we see on Earth. It is a statement about how the world operates. Either evolution, in its present or a more refined future form, explains the world or it does not. The moral worth of the person or persons proposing it is irrelevant. If Adolf Hitler said the sky is blue, does his evil make his statement untrue? Of course not. Likewise, even if Darwin were a bad person, that would not in any way invalidate his ideas. Facts are facts, reality is reality, and they remain so regardless of the person doing the observing.

I respect Darwin's achievement, I honor his memory, but in doing so I do not place him upon a pedestal. Darwin was a fallible, imperfect man who produced something amazing. But the true grandeur of science is that his ideas have achieved a life of their own, growing, changing, and evolving through the dedication and work of generations of scientists.

Evolutionary theory is not Darwin- it's much, much more than that.


* Although in perfect honesty, almost any day is a good day to castigate creationists.

** Totally not kidding, they did make the attempt, and no, Darwin did not enjoy abusing animals.

*** As a matter of fact, Darwin appears to have deeply loved his wife. I'm not so sure about John McCain.****

**** Which is to say, I'm not sure how McCain feels about his own wife. I don't imagine Darwin has any feelings about McCain one way or the other.

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