The BS Column: Darwin’s Savage Reviewers

(Published in the Business Standard, November 24, 2009)

On this day, one hundred and fifty years ago, the publishing house of John Murray brought out a condensed and abridged treatise on The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in a first printing of 1,250 copies.

The author, Charles Darwin, was delighted when John Murray ordered a second printing of 3,000 copies in the wake of public demand, and when the first printing in the United States of America ran to 2,500 copies. He considered this tremendously successful for a scientific work on the then obscure field that would become known as evolutionary biology. Over the next 150 years, Origin of Species would become one of the most widely read, reprinted and discussed works in the history of science.

Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection have had a massive influence on almost every aspect of contemporary thought. Companies and governments alike often abuse the principle of survival of the fittest. The emphasis on the evolution from man from other species has led animal rights thinkers to the argument that we will, eventually, have to cede non-human species more respect and rights than we are currently willing to offer. And Darwin’s exploration of mating practices in the animal kingdom as part of sexual selection influences a slew of dating games and tactics. It’s incredibly difficult, if you’re a thinking person in the 21st century, to try and imagine a world where we didn’t take the principles of evolution for granted.

Except in one field, where the opposition to Darwin’s The Origin of Species has always been fierce—religion. In the wake of the publication of Origin, the Church found itself split. The Bishop of Oxford came out fiercely against Darwin’s theory of evolution, as did the Church of England faction in general; but liberal Christians were able to support Darwin’s ideas.

Darwin followed these debates with great emotion, complaining bitterly against one reviewer: “But the manner in which he drags in immortality, & sets the Priests at me & leaves me to their mercies, is base.” A few lines later, he was more composed, thanking his friend J D Hooker for his support: “You have cockered me up to that extent, that I now feel I can face a score of savage Reviewers.”

And he has them still, a century and a half after The Origin of Species came out. In that time, there has been little scientific refutation of Darwin’s theories. But opposition to evolution comes from three unlikely, ill-assorted groups. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a valiant opponent of Darwinism, if the least influential of his critics today. ISCKON’s The Darwin Delusion draws from Intelligent Design rather than classic creationism to make its arguments. Author Lalithanatha Dasa says, “Darwinism is, more than anything else, the singular cause of atheism in our time.”

Creationism in its current US avatar is a well-funded and influential movement. Schools of creationist thought vary widely, but the basic text is the Book of Genesis, and in the creationist view, the timeline of human evolution is drawn from the Bible. (This seems to lead, as far as the newly established Creationist Museum demonstrates, to an obssession with dinosaurs and the belief that they were still walking the earth long after the fossil record would indicate possible, but that’s another story.)

Where US creationism has been most successful is in the challenging of the teaching of evolution in schools, and in its demand that creationism be taught alongside—preferably as an equally established scientific theory, despite the complete lack of scientific proof, but at any rate as a valid belief system. The debate over mixing science with religion is an ongoing, fierce, take-no-prisoners one, and it has had far-reaching effects on the equally ferocious free speech and censorship debate.

Though they have little else in common, the Genesis-inspired creationists and the burgeoning school of Islamic creationists are united in their hatred of Darwin. In bookstores in Turkey (and New Delhi’s Nizamuddin), you can find entire shelves devoted to theories of Islamic creationist belief. Harun Yahya/ Adnan Okhtar, the man who has written the 800-page standard text on Islamic creationism, is a fascinating figure. Condensed, Yahya’s views are that the world may well have been created billions of years ago, but that the creatures in it exist in the same form that they were originally created, by God. (There is a rather magnificent comparison between Darwinists and the wicked Pharaohs of Egypt, a must-read on Yahya’s website.)

If the first 150 years of the theory of evolution saw a battle between the Church and Darwinists, accompanied by growing acceptance of Darwin’s ideas among the scientific establishment, the next 50 years is likely to see a broader battle, between religious dogma and science, censorship and free speech. The power of Darwin’s theories can be seen, to a great extent, in the ferocity of the resistance currently being offered to them. Reason and scientific proof may yet win the day, but this is in some senses a very medieval, 21st century war.





One response to “The BS Column: Darwin’s Savage Reviewers”

  1. Rahul Siddharthan Avatar

    Great article, as always. Few people argue any more that the earth is flat, because we've taken pictures from space to prove otherwise, and air tickets to go around the world are now affordable to many people. The evidence for evolution is much harder to grasp for a layman. The human mind can't actually comprehend time scales of millions of years, given that individuals live for a few decades and we have no recorded history older than a few thousand years. So it is very hard to imagine how something as complicated as an eye could evolve, over millions of years, by natural selection. Perhaps some people will never be convinced. Still, I think the extreme form of creationism, which says the earth is 6000 years old, doesn't have much support any more.It should also be said that Darwin's ideas have been misused and misapplied elsewhere, particularly in the social sciences and economics.

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