Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?

So asks this essay and gets the whole thing wrong.

Darwin’s theories (plural) are not controversial because they imply that species are mutable. This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.

Darwin was not controversial because he implied racist ideas about humans. He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.

Darwin was not controversial because he thought the age of the earth was large. This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.

Darwin was not controversial because his account of humans being animals contradicted the Bible. Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.

Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.

No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.

All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.

Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us (although, as I have argued, a deity might choose this universe because we evolve in it). The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.

56 thoughts on “Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?

  1. “No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple.”

    Was a more general point about culture rather than Darwin or scientific theory. Off topic, taking things out of 19th century context with a sloppy first sentence.

    I think John covered the ground rather well in the post.

    Natural selection is not a threat to the odd notions and beliefs some scientists hold with regard to culture so I don’t think it is necessarily a threat to the odd notions or beliefs some religious folk may hold. I don’t think religion has survived without considerable adaption and change. Although it may not be thought of, discussed or presented as such by users of this aspect of culture.

    I don’t have any personal faith in religion, I don’t see it as a problem, I think the issue is with the way people think and I don’t think the issues are exclusive to religious thought.

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  2. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2012/11/north-korea-says-they-unearthed-unicorn-lair/59483/

    Gentlemen, we now have official evidence of unicorns.

    It is surely only a matter of time before we have evidence that the invisible fairy in the sky decided to turn itself into a man in the ancient Middle East desert two thousand years ago for the ultimate purpose of allowing himself to be hung to a tree and savagely tortured to death by a superstitious bunch of ignorant peasants in the most disgusting manner possible as a blood atonement for the apparent sins of his own creation.

    Let’s all take a moment and pray that this preposterous, idiotic, asinine, Neanderthal bunch of superstitious bullshit is actually true.

    Praise Jebus. Praise his holy fucking name. And fuck this blood sacrifice, Cro-Magnon bullshit. Amen.

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  3. Hi John,

    Well, in the US and perhaps everywhere as far as I know, most people who accept the theory of evolution based on Darwinism also believe in God. For example, the materialistic plausibility for every step of evolution from the first cellular progenitor to anatomically modern humans in no way implies that the initial conditions of universe would eventually generate human intelligence, but subtle guidance could have occasionally influenced the direction of evolution as proposed by the members of BioLogos.

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