Darwin’s theory was cold and scientific, but it gave rise to a myth which is neither
Colby Cosh, the dependably interesting columnist in the National Post, scored again last week. He had noticed that Dayton, Tennessee, venue of the famous Monkey Trial in 1925, had erected a statue of Clarence Darrow, defender of the science teacher John T. Scopes, charged with teaching high school students that men were descended from apes. The prosecuting attorney was William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for the presidency, and a militant Presbyterian defender of biblical accuracy. (The Scopes trial became a nation-wide circus. It is covered at length in our Christian history series, Vol. 12, p. 66)
But why the statue of Darrow? Surely Bible Belt Tennessee would have been on the side of Bryan? Because, Mr. Cosh explains, Dayton had erected a statue of Bryan 12 years ago. It was now doubtless trying to achieve balance. After all, the trial had put Dayton on the map of the world. It was covered by 200 newspaper reporters. For no other reason, people still visit Dayton. Many are believers in evolution. Why demonstrate a bias against them? “The Monkey Trial is eternal,” writes Mr. Cosh, “winding its way through American life decade after decade.”
Well, I certainly agree with him on that. So I decided to investigate how it’s unfolding in the current decade. What’s the latest evolution in the story of evolution? A name that kept reappearing was that of John Rennie, a former editor of the Scientific American, holding a B.Sc from Yale and having worked in some lab for ten years. He describes himself as a “journalist of Science.” His photos suggest someone in his twenties– youth ( I sigh) nowadays being a prerequisite of credibility. He is in fact two years short of 60. But he’s a good writer and a gifted street-fighter journalist, who’s fun to read, though some in the chilly world of modern scientific endeavour no doubt shudder at his occasional plunges into unrestrained scorn for the religious.
Anyway, when the 20th-Century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was asked whether he “believed in evolution,” he replied that the word in modern usage had two meanings. There is the scientific theory of evolution, and there is the “myth” of evolution. The myth is not scientific; it is purely romantic. Lewis called himself incompetent to pass an opinion on the theory; he definitely rejected the myth, as did many of the scientists he knew, he said. For the theory merely presents evolution as a process of endless change with no discernible goal or outcome. The myth presents it as a process of endless biological improvement leading towards an ultimate perfection in humanity. To use Mr. Rennie’s term when he’s discussing religion, the myth is “nonsense.”
How the myth came about is not difficult to see. Evolution per se leads us nowhere. Beyond our brief span in this life lies northing whatever. All our endeavours come to nothing; all stories come to nothing; all works of art will disintegrate and perish; all beauty will vanish. Beyond what we can touch, hear, see and smell in the here and now lies nothing whatsoever. Life, in other words, is totally without purpose or meaning. That is the message the theory, insofar as it has one.
That people don’t seem ready to enthusiastically embrace this dreary prospect, appears to baffle Mr. Rennie. He can’t account for their persistence in the idea of a Mind or Power of some kind behind nature. “Embarrassingly, in the 21st century,” he writes, “in the most scientifically advanced nation the world has ever known, creationists can still persuade politicians, judges and ordinary citizens that evolution is a flawed, poorly supported fantasy.”
Just imagine. Science gives us all this great news– that we share ancestors with the apes, and that our species is headed nobody knows where, when, how or why, and these foolish people don’t leap for joy. Mr. Rennie can’t account for the ingratitude. Such was the sentiment that led to the myth–that science by directing evolution will soon create the perfect person. Could science possibly be wrong about this? Has science ever been wrong about anything? During the 1920s, virtually the whole world of science fell in behind what became known as the eugenics movement, The idea was that certain human frailties were conveyed from generation to generation genetically. People with such disabilities — weak eyesight, chronic poverty, alcoholism, criminal conduct, most native peoples — should therefore be forcibly sterilized. Several “forward-thinking” states wrote it into their laws, and the forced sterilization was imposed upon young people, even newlyweds.
The program was endorsed by the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, by several leading scientific associations including the ophthalmologists, and by such luminaries as Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell. Meanwhile, spokesmen for science, much like Mr. Rennie, loudly fought to make eugenic sterilization compulsory, while condemning the “backwardness” of the Catholic Church for opposing it. The day soon came, however, when science changed its collective mind, and word was allowed to leak out that few if any of the qualities eugenics sought to curb were conveyed genetically. The program was a virtual fraud with the whole weight of the scientific establishment fully behind it.
Science has given us many gifts, but it is not infallible. All the advances in medicine are the gift of science. But as I write this, North Korea is deciding whether to hurl missiles that could wipe out tens of thousands of people. That capability too is a “gift” of science. So let’s not get carried away, Mr. Rennie.
Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.