In 2009, people all over the world wished Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday. They did so through symposia and conferences, exhibits and television specials, books and lectures. 781 events of one sort or another in 45 countries according to the International Darwin Day Foundation website.
Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin published his epochal study On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859 when he was fifty. A double celebration then: a bicentennial birthday and a sesquicentennial anniversary.
If you are reading this in the United States, you can be forgiven if you didn't quite notice the festivities. Certainly there were a number of events across the country marking the Darwin Year, but from my own observations these celebrations tended to be subdued, small-scale, often confined to university campuses, and a number happened late in the year giving them the faint odor of hurried after-thought.
The Smithsonian Institution, the nation's flagship scientific research organization, managed to muster a small, temporary exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History, and that opened only in September, 2009.
To be fair, Americans also had to contend with another 200th birthday in 2009: Abraham Lincoln's. By astonishing coincidence, Darwin and Lincoln arrived on this earth not just in the same year but on the very same day.
Lincoln was much more on the American mind in 2009, with events sponsored by national and state "Lincoln Commissions," and because of the remarkable presidential election of 2008 where Barack Obama repeatedly drew connections between himself and Lincoln. In this cultural context, Darwin occupied the back seat.
Still, the relatively quiet nature of Darwin observance in 2009 in the United States reflected the uneasy career Darwin has had in this country from the moment copies of Origin arrived on these shores. More so than in any other industrialized nation—indeed, more than in many nations—Americans remain in Darwin denial.
In spring 2009 the British Council conducted a poll surveying attitudes about Darwin around the world. To the question, "is there scientific evidence to support Darwin's theory of evolution?" 77% of Indians, 72% of Chinese and 65% of Mexicans answered yes; only 41% of Americans did, which put the United States slightly behind South Africa. In addition, roughly the same number of Americans, 43%, reported that life on Earth was created by God and has always existed in its current form.
Darwin Deniers exist all over the world. So too do scientists who, while enthusiastically and faithfully accepting the foundational ideas of Origin, have reconfigured and updated the theory over the intervening 150 years. Yet, only in the United States have religious objections to a scientific theory been turned into a social and political movement.
On May 3, 2007 during the first debate among the ten candidates vying to be the Republican nominee for president, a reporter asked, "Is there anyone on stage who does not believe in evolution?" Three of the men raised their hands, including a former governor, a sitting US Senator, and a Congressman. A fourth, John McCain, who would go on to represent the GOP, insisted that while he believed in evolution, "I also believe that when I hike the Grand Canyon the hand of God is there also."
It is difficult to imagine another country where mainstream politicians from a major party would respond this way. Indeed, it is hard to imagine another country where the question would even be asked. Of course, the woman McCain later picked to be his running mate wears her Darwin denial like a badge of honor.
So now that the Darwin Year has come to a close, I want to review the difficult reception Darwin has had, and continues to have in the United States. At one level, it is easy to argue that little has changed since religious Americans first got angry at Darwin. But it is also that case that Darwin Denial has transformed significantly over the last century and a half.
Act I: In Which Science is Confused with Social Science
By the time Origin appeared in 1859, the notion of evolution had been floating around for quite some time in scientific circles. In England, Darwin's own grandfather Erasmus saw evidence for evolution, and in the United States Joseph Leidy, the father of American paleontology, was also an evolutionist, to pick just two.
Darwin's contribution to natural science was to provide an explanation for how evolution worked, and he called it "natural selection." Noticing that the population of any species exhibits a certain degree of variation, he proposed that competition over resources and breeding would tend to favor, or not favor, certain of those variations. Over time—and Darwin suspected a great deal of time—new species would emerge out of this process of selection.
Leidy was so dazzled by the theory that he nominated Darwin for membership in Philadelphia's prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences, which became the first American institution to acknowledge Darwin's achievement.
Yet, in 1859, Harvard's Louis Agassiz, the most well known scientist in the United States, and among those with the most prestige, immediately took the role of Darwin's antagonist in this country. (As it happens, the first person to review Origin in the United States was Agassiz's Harvard colleague Asa Grey, a botanist who gave it a strong and positive notice, which must have made for interesting faculty meetings). Like a majority of people at the time, Agassiz remained convinced that the Bible explained creation, and that each species on earth, never mind how many new thousands were being discovered every year, was "a separate thought of the creator."
Agassiz died in 1873 and spent the last years of his life crusading against Darwinism. He was joined as well by some of the leading religious figures of the time. In 1865, the Reverend De Witt Talmage, preaching in Brooklyn's enormous Central Presbyterian Church, denounced Darwin by asking whether those who had died so bravely in the Civil War were somehow less fit than those who survived.
Charles Hodge from his post at the Princeton Theological Seminary had become perhaps the most respected theologian of the day. In his 1874 book, he asked What is Darwinism? and concluded: "It is atheism." In a deeply religious nation, Darwin offended the faithful.
By the turn of the twentieth century, however, a consensus of sorts emerged, or better put perhaps, a truce. Most scientists by that time accepted Darwinism in its broad outlines. The nascent field of genetics located the biological source of inheritance and variability, filling in a major lacuna in Darwin's book. Even those who weren't entirely convinced by the theory of natural selection acknowledged that there was no better way to explain the origin of species.
Likewise, by the turn of the last century most mainstream religious figures conceded the reality of evolution: species clearly did change over time—the explosion of paleontological discoveries in the late 19th century provided compelling evidence for the arrival and disappearance of all kinds of fantastic creatures—and thus evidence that species were not fixed.
Evolution was itself set in motion by the creator, they posited, much the way an earlier generation of theologians had imagined—in the face of Newtonian physics—the heavenly bodies set in motion by a divine hand.
Still, while religious leaders at the turn of the 20th century could accept evolution, most could not accept natural selection as its mechanism. Natural selection operated in chance and random ways, without purpose or design. A world governed by natural selection did not move ever upward and forward, but simply adapted to changing circumstances. And a world without design was dangerously close to a world without a designer. Religious figures could live with Darwin, provided no one asked too many hard questions.
What religious leaders of the late 19th century, especially those associated with the Social Gospel movement, could not abide, however, was the pernicious variant of Darwin's theories: Social Darwinism.
It is worth remembering that the phrase we most associate with Darwinism, "survival of the fittest," was coined by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer. (Darwin, though, did adopt the phrase later himself). And Spencer coined that phrase to capture the essence of the idea known as "Social Darwinism." By applying—or, frankly utterly misapplying—the mechanism Darwin saw at work among finches and pigeons to people and societies, Spencer insisted that natural selection—survival of the fittest—operated in the human and social world as well as in the natural world.
He spun a vast philosophy around this notion, which, among other things, helped to justify the dominance of certain races and classes over others. Invested with the power of scientific Darwinian insight, Spencer also insisted that Social Darwinism was no mere political ideology, but a natural law and an unalterable fact.
Spencer proved hugely popular and influential in Gilded Age America. Indeed, it is probably true that most Americans who claimed they were familiar with Darwin were, in fact, familiar with Spencer's version of him.
Chief among Spencer's American proselytizers was the nation's first professor of sociology William Graham Sumner. From his office at Yale University, Sumner described a society which functioned best when the strong triumphed over the weak, and in which any attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the inferior interfered with society's greater progress. Asking hypothetically if he wanted to kill off "certain classes of troublesome and burdensome persons," Sumner responded, no, but added: "it would have been better for society, and would have involved no pain to them, if they had never been born."
The laissez faire doctrine of American politics in the late 19th century found its intellectual champion in Sumner. That Sumner's sociology served simply as an apology for the Robber Barons, dressed up as "science," did not go unnoticed at the time.
Those who preached the Social Gospel insisted that Christian duty demanded we alleviate human suffering and mitigate the effects of poverty and exploitation. They advocated a muscular Christianity that would leave the quiet of the churches and march in the streets. They railed against Sumner and other Social Darwinists that human society was not—should not be—an uncaring, savage jungle where only the strong survived. Human beings, they argued, could do better than the animals. This, after all, was the message of the Scriptures, according to Social Gospelers. In any Christian society, we really are our brother's keepers. In 1912, for example, Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch called industrial capitalism, the social order Sumner defended, only "semi-christian."
In other words, by the turn of the 20th century, the most vocal and pressing religious objections to Darwin were not to Darwin's scientific theory, but rather to the specious and ham-handed way science had been used to tart up a particular brand of political economy, and thus to justify a world of Dickensian social inequality.
In turn, Darwinism, arguably the greatest scientific revolution of the 19th century, became an unwitting source of our largest intellectual oxymoron: social science.
Act II: In Which That Ol' Time Religion Arrives on the Scene
As a morality play, it could not have been scripted any better.
1925. Dayton, Tennessee, a small Southern town stewing in its own backwardness. John Scopes, a young, courageous high school teacher who took on the forces of reaction. And with a courtroom serving as the OK Corral, two nationally famous gunslingers brought in to fight it out: prosecuting young Scopes was William Jennings Bryan, himself a relic of the nineteenth century, whose own childhood education consisted only of McGuffey Readers and the Bible and that was plenty. Defending Scopes the nation's most famous champion of righteous and unpopular causes, Clarence Darrow.
They called it the Scopes Monkey Trial, and as it proceeded its significance quickly grew beyond the mere facts of the case. It was seen as a struggle between science and religion, between the modern and the traditional, between superstition and reason.
John Scopes was brought to trial in the summer of 1925 for violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which made it a crime to, "teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." "Save our children for God!" cried one state senator in support of the bill when it was debated.
Scopes in fact was only a substitute science teacher and wasn't exactly sure himself whether he had discussed evolution in his class, though the ACLU pointed out that the state-approved science textbook in Tennessee did, and thus all science teachers in the state were, in effect, being forced to break the law. No matter, Scopes was found guilty after a 7-day trial.
Our view of the Scopes trial is usually filtered through the lens of Jerome Lawrence's and Robert Edwin Lee's play, Inherit the Wind, which premiered in 1955, thirty years after the trial itself. The playwrights weren't interested in a strictly accurate account of the events in Dayton. Rather, much like Arthur Miller did in The Crucible, they used a dark and embarrassing episode in American history to critique the era of McCarthyism. The play ran on Broadway for two years and has been made into a movie at least four times.