The exhibit on Charles Darwin at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC is not to be missed. I am a biologist by trade; you could say biology is my business. Yet I learned a great deal from this “popular” exhibition, and three hours passed before I could tear myself away. There is something in it for everyone, from high school kids to working scientists.
Toward the end, I came upon a video presentation, which took on the controversy of intelligent design, aka creationism, versus evolution. And there I found that both the Museum and a number of my fellow scientists had taken a pass on the controversy. One prominent biologist featured in the video reassured us that he is a man of faith and a man of science. He warned the creationists of the danger – to themselves – of filling in gaps in our understanding of the natural world with God. This, he lamented, posed a threat to the believer. For, if science later filled in those gaps with provable, natural explanations, one’s faith could be put in jeopardy. I found this a peculiar argument. After all, should we not amend our views based on new facts? Or was this scientist saying: don’t let the facts get in your way when it comes to God? In fact the intellectual history of the last five hundred years has been a chronicle of plucking God out of such gaps and inserting scientific explanations. Darwin’s idea of natural selection itself was presaged by the rapidly developing science of geology, which had found that the earth was far older than the 6000 years calculated from the Bible. The earth’s great age provided Darwin with the vast stretches of time required for natural selection to do its work.
And long before that, as we all know, Copernicus and Galileo nudged aside the Christian belief that the earth stands motionless at the center of the universe. Soon Newton was able to explain all motion, from the heavenly bodies to lowly objects on the earth, in terms of mathematical formulations totally foreign to the Bible and its tenets. From that time on Newton’s Principia displaced the Bible and all sacred texts as the most influential book in the history of mankind. Because the gaps that were filled by God have been replaced by beautiful, simple, natural explanations, faith is indeed threatened. In fact to anyone willing to draw on an ounce of common sense, God becomes increasingly untenable. This is the history of modern experimental and theoretical science and modern thought itself. The creationists are correct to see Darwin and indeed all of science as a threat to their beliefs and in the case of the televangelists a threat to their substantial earthly fortunes wrung from the poor.
Darwin himself became an atheist based in part on what he learned about the origins of species. And this conclusion was reinforced by the heart-wrenching death of his beloved ten year-old daughter, probably of tuberculosis, whom he could not save. Why then do none of the scientists in the concluding display at the Museum of Natural History echo Darwin’s atheism when a large fraction of scientists are not theists? Not one! This suggests that the Museum, and perhaps even the scientists featured in the exhibit, are pandering to the religious fundamentalists in our society and, in the process, betraying the advocacy of the truth to which they are committed above all else. Great scientists like Charles Darwin or Francis Crick or other atheistic luminaries who have lighted our paths would have had none of this.
Passing on this controversy is not without consequences, often life and death ones. Our nation is presently in the grip of a “neoconservative,” more properly “radical reactionary,” cabal, which has led us into the debacle in Iraq. The founding philosopher of neo-conservatism, Leo Strauss, felt that science posed a danger when it spread beyond the confines of a privileged few. Strauss, himself an atheist, believed society was to be ruled by an atheistic elite, above the law; the orderly function of society would be guaranteed by a number of myths, most importantly and centrally religion, holding the great unwashed (i.e., you and me) in thrall and under control. Part of this control is to inspire large numbers of us to march off to war and death when the elite deem it necessary. As “Rev.” Pat Robertson said in supporting the war and the President, “I just think God’s blessing is on him.” Or as W has said, God instructed him to attack Iraq. In the same vein Strauss felt that science, religion’s opposite, should not be communicated to the masses, since it would be a threat to social control. Fortunately for us, this Straussian goal is an impossible one since science is by its very nature a massive social enterprise.
I found the concluding section of the Darwin exhibit to be a betrayal of the spirit of Darwin and little more than a parroting of the politically correct view that there is no contradiction between religion and science. The creationists, however, know better and as a consequence fear science mightily. We now stand on the threshold of the 21st century where enormous challenges face us: staggering poverty, continuing racism, raging wars, pandemics, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation or of the irreversible despoliation of the planet. We cannot afford to approach these problems based on myths, religious or otherwise, however comforting. Religion cannot be our guide. And the alternative is not so metaphysically bleak as some would have us believe. Darwin himself said that there was a “grandeur” in his view of the unity of life. And there is hope in it too, since the scientific view of the world can lead us to a life that might be the envy of the gods, were there any.
Everyone is free of course to express his or her religious views. We should not challenge that. But the time is long overdue for more of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, to acknowledge ourselves as atheists and to advocate our views vigorously. And one cannot escape the consequences of being “neutral” or “polite” in the struggle between science and religion. If the voices for a non-religious worldview remain silent, then the Christian fundamentalists win by default. Perhaps if people’s faith in eternal life is shaken a bit, they will be less likely to goose step off into oblivion. Would-be soldiers and victims are owed this even if it means some of us have to abandon comforting illusions or comfortable social approval to convey this message.
Some of the materials of the Darwin exhibit, but not the offending video, can be found at: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/
John V. Walsh is a professor of physiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.