Questioning Authority: Biologist Stan Rachootin on Charles Darwin

Monday, February 9, 2009 - 12:00

In honor of Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday on February 12, and the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, Questioning Authority asked biology professor Stan Rachootin for his thoughts on the continuing significance of the theory of evolution.

QA: This year we celebrate a double anniversary for Charles Darwin: his two hundredth birthday and the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Why after all this time is Darwin still so controversial?

SR: The greatest scientists usually have a shorter shelf life than, say, the greatest philosophers or poets or founders of major religions. Usually, within a few years of their demise, the discoveries of these scientists are either common knowledge or a special case. They might be refashioned into mythological heroes for introductory courses, but there rarely is much reason to have to read them. Science, alas, progresses.

Darwin is somewhat different. He caused the biggest scientific revolution so far. For him, humans are a portion of "the higher animals." We belong to the living world. He invented the scientific study of variation; later, one of his followers, William Bateson, provided a name for the new field: "genetics." And Darwin took the most accessible argument for the existence of God, the argument from design, one that had underpinned science for hundreds of years, and showed that it was superfluous. As he noted (to himself, just after inventing natural selection),
"He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke."

These historical turning points suffice to keep Darwin relevant, because our place in the living world is ever more precarious, genetics is reshaping our view of life, and religion remains a touchstone in a world that is otherwise less and less able to provide certainty to those who demand it.

But maybe anniversaries tell us something, too. Last year was the hundred-and-seventieth anniversary of the theory of natural selection--Sept 28, 1838. Darwin figured it out when he was 29. Then he spent 21 years attending to its implications, solving problems to his satisfaction that were bigger challenges than any critic ever imagined. Although he had many correspondents, none knew his mind, his worries, or his solutions. The depth that he achieved makes his work the equal of much that has been done since. For a number of truly difficult problems of biology, Darwin is still a good guide, and a source of fresh insights.

QA: Why do people on the academic left have problems with Darwin? If they reject evolution, what do they propose in its place?

SR: The left can be just as ignorant as other constituencies. Marx realized the close connection between Darwin's thinking and capitalism. Therefore, Darwin had to be wrong. Engels, who was willing to read and use science, tried to argue that Darwin had a great deal of evidence beyond some ideas shared with Malthus and Adam Smith. But he could not budge his master.

Darwin did not deal in social Darwinism, whether of the right or the left. But he did, I think, contribute to a world that is informed by both baboons and philosophers. Many on both the right and the left would prefer to get the baboons out. A Darwinian world is one in which there are likely to be aspects of human nature that are innate, rather than social constructs. Some are un-nice--aspects of ourselves we should choose to work against.

QA: We hear a lot these days about people in developing countries not accepting the theory of evolution. Is it important for them to do so?

SR: The theory of evolution is a family of ideas, and most are at some remove from the changes that could bring more prosperity to places with far too little of it. Paranoia about AIDS, vaccines, birth control, and genetically modified organisms has exacerbated suffering. Some understanding of evolution would have helped combat costly fears. But the paranoia is just as evident in the overdeveloped world. It just doesn't do as much harm when there is more to go around.

QA: Reflecting on your own career, why is Darwin important to you?

SR: In subjects ranging from Aesthetics to Marxism to Six English Poets, I tortured my college professors with papers on evolution. My Ph.D. was a book report on a book Darwin never quite got around to writing. "Darwin" has been the subject of one course I have been teaching since my first year of graduate school. He has provided an excuse to delve into the theologians, philosophers, and, especially, the naturalists who influenced him. Through them, I can try to imagine eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attempts to make sense of the world.

What I have gleaned from Darwin has also fundamentally affected how I teach modern evolutionary theory. Darwin sought to connect all of biology to his greatest discovery, natural selection. His effort gives an idea of what a coherent vision of biology might look like. Unfortunately, his unification did not take, because part of it, his theory of inheritance-development-physiology, happens to be wrong. I find his failures are much more intellectually engaging that the fragmented thoughts and techniques that reside in their place today.

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