Science and Spirit: Darwin’s Singular Notion

(There was a technical problem with the audio portion this month, sorry.)

Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion.  It was good enough for little David. It was good enough for Old Jonah. It was good enough for the Hebrew children. It’s good enough for me.

This old spiritual, which becomes the rallying song for a mob of incensed bible thumpers in the fictional heavenly hamlet of Hillsboro Tennessee, is the haunting underscore for the gripping courtroom battle between two larger than life   lawyers  over the fate of a high school biology teacher who has dared to teach about evolution in a state that has banned it. He is arrested in his classroom, thrown into jail, burned in effigy and put on what is called the monkey trial, referring to the  heresy or  truth  at the very heart of the outrage: that humans are descendants of  and part of the primate  family.

It is a carnival of national media, hot dog and bible vending. It is a horror of  fear  mongering,  fire and damnation.

In the play and the film Inherit the Wind, the dueling attorneys are not only on opposite sides of the guilt or innocence of one man.

They are on opposite sides of a longstanding battle that has pitted The Word of God  against the  Findings of Science. Science in this case and in so many others over the years embodied in the scientific theories and religious beliefs of Charles Darwin. Or what was presumed to be his theories and religious beliefs.

Inherit the Wind was written as a response to the threat to intellectual freedom presented by the blacklisting McCarthy era of the early 1950’s, using the famous Scopes Trial set in the vague “not long ago” as a metaphor for the shield of dogma used to repress freedom of thought and the use of human reason that was sweeping the country.

It did not claim to be an historically accurate depiction. Place names and names of trial participants were changed. Several fictional characters were added, including a fundamentalist preacher and his daughter, fiancée of the accused teacher. But much of the exchange between the two lawyers and the words of the judge were lifted straight from the actual trial transcript of 25 years before.

In   the steaming hot summer of 1925, in Dayton Tennessee, the real life John Thomas Scopes , a 24 year old general science teacher and part-time football couch ,was tried for violating the state’s anti-evolution statute making it unlawful to “teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals,” a misdemeanor punishable by punishable by a fine of no less than $100 or more than $500 for each offense.

This law that he had admittedly violated was one of  similar ones that had been introduced in fifteen states under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President, who led a fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin’s theory of evolution in American classrooms, believing that the teaching of evolution was undermining the traditional values he had long supported. The same Bryan who volunteered to help the prosecution in the trial in Tennessee.

Historians tell us that these crusades to purge what was generalized as Darwinism from public education began as early as 1917, and were most successful in the South where Fundamentalists controlled the large Protestant denominations.

The first law passed in Oklahoma. Later that same year, the Florida legislature approved a joint resolution declaring that it was “ improper  and subversive to teach Atheism or Agnosticism or to teach as true Darwinism or any other hypothesis that links Man in blood relationship with any other form of life.”

It wasn’t just chance that the Tennessee school teacher was accused and arrested. Like other civil and intellectual rights issues, his was part of a carefully orchestrated legal strategy to find just the right defendant at the right time.

He had been recruited to be the needed defendant at a meeting in the town drugstore, where an ACLU member and a progressive Methodist, and some of  the  local leaders joined in asking him to stand for a test case: partly because they believed it was it was an unjust law, and partly because they believed a controversial and well attended trial might greatly help their town, which was shrinking in population and might fall on harder times.

He admitted on the spot that he had taught from the still state approved textbook Civic Biology( which was sold at that very drugstore) which included lessons in evolution, believing no one could teach science without them.

The townsmen got what they wanted, along with contempt and notoriety in the national media, as up to 5,000 people poured into the courtroom and onto the lawn outside it to witness the proceedings or even get a glimpse of the two famous lawyers- Bryan and Clarence Darrow, an outspoken agnostic freethinker, holding forth day and night.

As historian Douglas Linder describes it, very much like scenes in Inherit the Wind, banners decorated the street. Lemonade stands were set up. Chimpanzees said to have been brought to the town to testify for the prosecution, performed in a side show on Main Street.

Anti-Evolution League members sold copies of Hell and High School. In Linder’s words, “holy rollers rolled in the surrounding hills and riverbanks.”

Evangelists in actuality erected an open air, temporary tabernacle, and nearby buildings were covered with posters, as one reporter observed, exhorting people to ‘read your bible,” and avoid eternal damnation.

The trial itself, as shown in both attorneys’ opening words, was not narrowly focused on that particular state law and the violation thereof  in one high school class, but was billed from the start as a titanic struggle between good and evil, truth and ignorance. With Bryan insisting that “if evolution wins, Christianity goes” and Darrow countering that “Scopes isn’t on trial. Civilization is on trial.” That the anti-evolution law made the Bible “the yardstick to measure every man’s intellect, to measure every man’s intelligence, to measure every man’s learning.”

No less a chasm than existed for Darwin himself  in his own time, his own country, his own marriage and his own conscience.

In his Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson devotes a mere 15 and a half pages out of 478 pages of text to Darwin, the Agnostic or perhaps Atheistic  poster person for scientific humanists on one hand, and the  white bearded Anti-Christ for religious fundamentalists on the other.

And arguably the best known scientist in history. Perhaps because Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary science and the ensuing religious controversies were far more modest than he is either given credit for or damned for.

In Bryson’s telling, Darwin, deeply disappointing to his prosperous physician father: indifferent graduate of a Unitarian primary school;  failed  medical student who couldn’t bear the sight of blood;  failed law student: and a theologically tepid divinity graduate from Cambridge bound for a post in the Anglican Church; embarked on his five year voyage on the naval survey ship HMS Beagle essentially as dinner company for the captain, whose hobby was , ironically, to seek out evidence for the literal biblical interpretation of creation. Since Darwin was already a less than wholeheartedly devoted Christian, this was a constant source of friction between the two men, living for years in very close and uncomfortable quarters.

His previous pastimes of partridge shooting, dogs, and rat-catching ill equipped him for the work of serious biological research, except perhaps his college pursuit of collecting beetles. Not dissecting them or rarely comparing them with published descriptions, but managing to find and identify some rare species nonetheless.


Over the five years of his expedition, he stopped shooting all the birds and other animals he spotted, and while he couldn’t draw them, wrote about them in his journals. He found a magnificent trove of fossils, survived an earthquake in Chile, and discovered a new species of dolphins, among other findings.

And upon his return, never left England again.

One thing Darwin did not do on his voyage, Bryson tells us, was to propound the theory ( or  even a theory) of evolution. For starts, he writes, the theory of evolution was decades old by the time Darwin was working on ideas of his own, including the notion of a very old Earth.

It was only after he returned home and read Thomas Malthus’ essay on the principle of population, who proposed that increases in food supply could never keep up with population growth, that Darwin began thinking that life was indeed a perpetual struggle, and that natural selection was the means by which some species prospered, while others failed. That all organisms competed for resources and those that had some inborn advantage would survive, pass them on to their offspring, and by these means constantly improve or transform.

This awfully simple idea as Bryson calls it, this singular notion, was Darwin’s contribution to the evolution debate, which he did not call “survival of the fittest,” but the coining of which he admired.

He did not much use the term “evolution”, preferring instead “descent with modification.”  Nor, as often reported, did he even notice the difference of beaks among finches in the Galapagos Islands, a neon sign of their adaptability, but a more skilled birder friend of his who realized what Darwin had only neutrally captured in his specimen collecting.

It was a slow and  often interrupted slog for Darwin to translate his voyage observations into the rudiments of his new theory, drafting a 230 page “sketch” some two years later, then putting his notes away and for the next 15 years busying himself with other matters—like marrying, fathering 10 children, devoting eight years to an opus on barnacles, and fighting off a host of strange disorders that left him chronically listless, faint, and flurried as he put it, sometimes only able to work at 20 minutes at a stretch. Perhaps a tropical disease or perhaps psychosomatic illness, some say was the result of the enormity of what he had discovered scientifically for human morality and the future of the belief in God.

How much of a contrast was his notion of the slow and unpredictable, flawed and un-pretty , and even cataclysmic process of the evolution of creatures was  with the swift orderliness  and predictability, and the lyricism of the Genesis story of the Bible with its six day process of  a  creation composed by  God.

“What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write “he clumsy, wasteful, blunderinglow and horridly cruel works of nature” Charles Darwin brooded in l856, about to start the Origin of Species. A creation with emerging fossil evidence of all manner of adaptations from glorious  to grotesque  and deadly.

“ I cannot persuade myself,” Darwin said, “ that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of  Caterpillars.”

Or orchestrate explicable and inexplicable disappearances— including  mass extinctions

What came to be Darwin’s personal God had appointed natural laws to evolve life rather than intervene. There was no providence, no design, no special intervention, as in the creation, appearance, or special evolution of humans. His God had transmuted  into an absentee landlord and nature self sufficient.   And he knew how controversial, how incendiary this notion was outside a narrow band of scientists and fellow intellectuals. Yet still he remained convicted.

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect we wish to be created at once by aspecial act,” he wrote.

Much to her perpetual distress, his God was not the God of  his beloved and pious wife Emma, who believed almost onto death in a God who revealed himself  directly and actively both in his works and his words, and she feared always for  his salvation and their separation after life.

What Darwin was discovering through scientific inquiry and the processes of his own freethinking not only challenged  the all judging  God of the Calvinists and Anglicans of his day, but also the all Great and all Good benevolent God of his Unitarian forebears, including his grandfather.

It was a radical and terrifying thought to him, one that felt like genuine heresy: that the human mind,  morality, the belief in God were perhaps only conditioned artifacts of the brain.  That every instinct, every desire could be found there, each an evolutionary inheritance.

That’s why there is reason to speculate that he lived a life of a tormented evolutionist, that his peripheral religious discoveries in pursuit of how life changes, how we adapt, that may well have made him violently and chronically ill, that indeed delayed the publication of his Origins of Species until he could no longer. Even after another anonymous author came out with a book suggesting that human beings might have evolved from lesser primates without the assistance of a divine creator, taking on himself the first round of wrath,  blasted from pulpits throughout England,  Darwin still kept his notes locked away.

It was only when another scientist, a young naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, sent him the draft of a paper outlining a theory of natural selection that was, in Bill Bryson’s words, uncannily similar to Darwin’s secret jottings that Darwin unlocked the drawer and published them. The two had previously corresponded, with Darwin having pointedly suggested that while his research had been tucked away for 20 years, that the subject of species selection was “his” and that he was preparing his work for publication, though in actuality he was not.

The compromise between the two scientists was to present their papers together at a scientific society meeting.  The younger scientist seemed pleased to be included and thereafter referred to their collective research as Darwinism, the term that has been used to describe a mash up of evolutionary research ever since, some of its his, some of it not.

When an advanced copy of On The Origin of Species was sent to a distinguished editor for review in 1859, he advised the author that as the audience for such a book was very narrow, Darwin might rather consider writing a book on pigeons. Everyone is interested in pigeons, he said helpfully.

The esteemed editor was proven dead wrong when first edition of 1,250 copies sold out the same day. In his autobiography, Darwin reports immodestly about the immediate success of his book, citing the first day sales and adding that a second edition of 3000 sold out shortly thereafter. He  noted that 16000 copies had been sold in England over less than 20 years, and the book, even though a “stiff one”, had been translated into almost every European tongue, and Hebrew, where someone found  that his theory was contained in the Old Testament. The reviews were numerous, he had saved them all—some 265–and many articles and essays and books on Darwinusmus had followed.

It has never been out of print, and scarcely out of controversy, whether over the flimsiness of some of its science, such as lack of fossil record at that time of his proposed intermediate species. Or arguments that the complexity of nature is proof that there must be intelligent design, since how could it be so randomly so. Or critiques of the vacuum in his work about how species originated, rather than how they might become stronger or better.

The controversy in his own time and beyond around his own latter day prejudices as one biographer pointed out: he may have thought blacks were inferior, but was sickened by slavery. He subordinated  women , but was dependent upon his wife and daughters. Did he indeed take his theories about how nature culls its unfit members and extrapolate this to human beings?

Some have said that social Darwinism was added to his work by others and at later times. His notebooks, historians have seen, contain arguments for competition, free trade, imperialism, racial superiority and sexual inequality from the start.

As for Darwin’s religious views, or his scientific theories and their radical implications for religious belief, he was nearly miraculously redeemed immediately upon his death in his home country. Despite his admission that after 40 years he had left Christianity in any form, and his unwillingness  to claim anything else other than a sincere agnosticism, he was nonetheless  buried in Westminster Abbey following posthumous pomp and circumstance. The Unitarians and free thinkers were the most laudatory, but religious writers of all persuasions it has been written then testified to his “noble character and ardent pursuit of truth.”

Opposition to Darwinism on the basis of the threat to fundamentalist faith has ebbed and flowed on this side of the Ocean, with the Scopes trial effectively halting the proposed laws in other states that would have banned the teaching of evolution, but the law being tested in Tennessee was not  lifted until 1967, and there have been other more recent attempts to put disclaimers in textbooks about the “controversial” theory of evolution or to have Creationism taught along side in science classes.


But the cry for one- sided Creationism and anti-Darwinism have not gone away in response to legal rulings. A Georgia Congressman Paul Broun saw four thousand voters write in the name of Charles Darwin in his last unopposed election in angry response to Broun’s statement that both evolution and the Big Bang Theory were lies straight from the pit of  hell.

Why is there still so much controversy over Darwin’s Theory?

Richard Dawkins and others do not believe his ideas are still controversial because they imply that species can change or that he thought the age of the earth was large or that humans are animals like all other animals. Dawkins believes that the proposition that the living world is not shaped by Design and that it lacks a Plan or Meaning– rather that it follows from natural selection which can look so much like intelligent design– that disturbs many people.

It undercuts our belief that We Are Special. It right sizes our standing in the scheme of things, in the disorder of the universe.

So humbling and yet so liberating a singular notion.