Charles Darwin Charles Darwin - portrait by George Richmond, 1840. CD, English scientist: 12 February 1809– 19 April 1882. GR, English painter: 28 March 1809 – 19 March 1896.Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking work underpins the modern Humanist world-view. This has led Humanists, along with other secularists to celebrate his birthday (12 February) as Darwin Day. Darwin and those who followed in his footsteps have given us a fact-based, scientific frame-work within which to understand the great diversity of living things, past and present, and our place in the scheme of things. However, the pre-Darwinian world-view still has influence, causing much social conflict as it rubs up against the post-Darwinian world-view.

The pre-Darwinian world-view

This largely Western world-view was firmly in place until the late 1800s. It was based on some of the following very widely held ideas and beliefs.

  • A creator god who made all the myriad of different life forms or species. Each was created fully formed and unchangeable – hence the concept of fixed or immutable species.
  • Man was god’s special creation and all the other creatures were given by god for man’s use. The Earth and presence of life was no older than implied by the biblical account. This was calculated as a few thousand, rather than many millions of years old.
  • The concept of the Great Chain of Being. An idea that there is a hierarchy of beings from the highest – god the creator, the angels, then humans – suitable stratified, then the animal kingdom – from higher animals, such as birds and mammals, down to creepy crawlies. Where to place creatures on the Great Chain of Being was much discussed.
  • Humans, who were deemed a superior life form, were the sole possessor of a soul.
  • How to lead one’s life was laid down by god, as interpreted by religious authority figures. To violate their rulings was to sin!
  • Because life was god-given and sacred, in theory there should be no killing or taking of life. Murder and suicide were considered seriously sinful and immoral, and this was reflected in the law.
  • Human death was believed to be transcended by passage into an afterlife, of a heaven or a hell. It was therefore desirable that individual lives conform to the dictates of the Christian ideal. The duty of man is to please god!
  • The concept of hierarchy, as conceived in the idea of the Great Chain of Being, lent substance to socially stratified practices, such as:
    • Certain individuals and their family members were of a higher status, e.g. nobility, lords and ladies, and the divine right of kings, being off-shoots of this social practice. By
      Darwin’s time the people understood society also to be divided into classes.
    • Men being superior to women, deemed the weaker sex.
    • White races were superior to coloured races. Generally the darker the colour, the lower down the Great Chain of Being.
  • These views were held as certain and true. Morals rules were supposed to be god-given. Ethical principles were considered absolute.
  • These views were associated with religious rituals, ceremonies and practices that many found deeply satisfying. Most people participated in church-going and rites of passage. Not to do so often incurred social ostracism and exclusion from full participation in society.
  • These views were pervaded with a sense that the god-given account was the ‘One and Only True Account of How Things Really Are!’

Darwin’s contribution

While Darwin’s name, in popular parlance, is synonymous with evolution, his famous contribution was to offer a mechanism, ‘natural selection’, not just the idea, which had been around for about two thousand years. What the idea of evolution had lacked, until Darwin and Alfred Wallace, was a plausible mechanism of how species might change and evolve, into different life forms.

The post-Darwinian world-view

This science-based world-view is widely held in the west, by the scientists and many other educated people. Some key elements of it are these:

  • Knowledge is evidence-based, not revelatory.
  • The Earth was formed naturally and is very old. We now think about 4.5 billion years.
  • Life forms have been created by natural evolutionary processes which began around 3 to 4 billion years ago.
  • Humans have been formed by the same evolutionary processes.
  • Dying and death are an inevitable consequence of life. Each species renews itself with a fresh generation of young, fit individuals. By dying, bodily material can be decomposed and recycled to sustain other life forms.
  • We humans are on our own, in the sense that we don’t have a maker or guardian angel. We are therefore free to lead our lives as autonomous beings able to make up our own minds about what to do as we get through each day and pursue a range of pleasures that do no harm to others.
  • Religions are man-made.
  • There is no one true account, just what is the best fit for the information and theories available. There is no certainty.
  • The idea of a god creator tends to be seen as a redundant hypothesis; therefore the Great Chain of Being loses its head and starts to look dodgy.
  • Humans are better seen as diverse rather than as part of some divinely ordered hierarchy. Plurality spreads horizontally rather than hierarchically (with an above and a below, or superior and inferior).
  • Moral absolutes were not handed down from on high: instead, doing the ‘right’ thing is more or less commonsense practice for most individuals and social groups.
  • Doing unto others what you’d like done to you – forms a simple summing up of good behaviour. Children learn from an early age that they are expected to behave in certain ways that contribute to caring, fairness and harmony in the home or at school with their friends, peers, cousins, siblings.

Summary

It is the irreconcilable contradictions between pre- and post-Darwinian world-views that underly religion-based conflicts around the world. Time and a tolerant approach to social living are required if these conflicts are to be reined in.

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 52, No. 1, 2013

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2015 Rosslyn Ives

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One Response to Why Darwin matters

  1. Moss Larsen says:

    It’s always enlightening and intellectually satisfying to read your articles Rosslyn. What a shame they can’t be more widely distributed. Thanks.

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