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Darwin Day

Charles Darwin
Library of Congress
Charles Darwin

It is a pleasing coincidence that Darwin Day, February 12, comes just before Valentine’s Day, when birds and young people are traditionally supposed to choose their mates. Both events are about selection and reproduction, and we may hope that Darwin Day 2022 will serve as a hint that it’s time to get evolution moving again in the right direction.

The social prophets of the past, such as H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, never imagined in their wildest fantasies that, in the 21st century, we would still be engaging in 18th-century debates about metaphysics versus science. Europeans are both amused and dismayed that we are still divided about the teaching of evolution in schools — arguments that hark back to the 1920s, and that were considered historic then.

This is not to say that the theory of evolution is self-evidently correct. It is the second most fantastically improbable theory of life that anyone has ever imagined. If you study an ordinary garden bird, a Nuthatch for example, it’s not ordinary in any way, and it stuns the imagination to accept that such a beautiful and complex creature could be created by a series of small adaptations, even over millions of years. There is evidence in the fossil record, and more from modern genetic research. The theory of evolution may well be true, but it’s not easy to prove it, or to believe it. It has the advantage of being fundamentally un-provable, like a conspiracy theory, so the two sides can defend to their positions (and make a good living out of it) until doomsday. Those who feel left out can always go for the third option, the so-called “Intelligent Design” theory. But it’s hard to credit this idea if you read the newspaper every morning, and even harder if you watch television.

Many people reject evolution because they wrongly imagine it is the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, and this makes no sense when we consider the human condition. Millennia of evolution based on the survival of the fittest would surely have produced a better result. We should expect — as the most highly evolved creatures — to be living in a peaceful society governed by people with superior intellectual and moral qualities and based on the principles of science and rationalism. Right now we seem to be headed back to the 1860s, or even to the Dark Ages.

But what Darwin proposed was not the brutal survival of the fittest but the theory of Natural Selection, that the best-adapted individuals survive. The key to survival is not having a superior intellect, or even being a superior physical specimen: it’s knowing which way the wind blows and adapting to it no matter what. You can scarcely argue with that, especially if you have ever worked in a bureaucracy or a government department. The secret of success is to fit into your niche, follow the crowd and whatever you do don’t rock the boat.

A trip to Washington, D.C., will confirm this. There is a splendid zoo where you can observe how the other primates, about 98% of whose DNA we share, behave in social situations. They gather in troops or tribes, beat their chests, screech and howl and chatter and fight with any tribe that is different from their own. The monkey house, as Darwin reminds us, is not just a rude entertainment. It is a liberal education.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.