Comments: The following two letters to The Guardian were not published. At the time, I had still not done the research into Patrick Matthew that would result in “Darwin’s Guilty Secret”.
In your booklet, On the Origin of Species (February 9), it was good to read Richard Dawkins actually acknowledging Patrick Matthew. However, he was wrong to say that Matthew was only concerned with negative natural selection. I quote from the Appendix of Matthew’s 1831 book, “Naval Timber and Arboriculture”:
“As the field of existence is limited and pre-occupied, it is only the hardier, more robust, better suited to circumstance individuals who are able to struggle forward to maturity….”
Along with many pre-Darwinian evolutionists, Matthew has been seriously under acknowledged. Though your booklet rightly dispels the myth of Darwin’s theory having been formed on the Galapagos Islands, it does not make clear that Darwin was well familiar with evolution theory long before he went there, as a result of his grandfather and his many conversations at Edinburgh University with Robert Grant, who, in turn had been influenced by the truly great Lamarck.
In her review of “The Genius of Charles Darwin” (Last night’s TV, G2, August 5), Nancy Banks-Smith rightly approves of much of what Richard Dawkins said. What she did not point out is what he didn’t say. The programme only perpetuated the myth that Darwin originated evolution theory. Failing to mention his grandfather (Erasmus Darwin, an evolutionary pioneer), Lamarck (the most prominent evolutionary pioneer), Robert Grant (who discussed Lamarckism with Darwin at great length long before he went on the Voyage of the Beagle) and Edward Blyth (whose 1830’s articles on natural selection Darwin is known to have read) amounts to reprehensible deception. Darwin may have been a meticulous observer and accumulator of facts, but he was also very fortunate to become commonly regarded as the father of evolution theory.
Comments: Following the Creationism in Schools fiasco in September 2008, leading to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss as director of education at the Royal Society, I had the following letter published in The Independent, which was where I first read about it.
Your three articles about the teaching of creationism in schools (September 12th) only serve to show how education has become compartmentalized for the purposes of exams rather than a preparation for life. However unlikely or preposterous it may seem, even Richard Dawkins cannot legitimately dismiss the idea that some sort of supernatural entity might have played a part in the creation of the universe and living organisms. Therefore, creationism is a legitimate theory, which means that natural evolution is only a theory too. It is surely the duty of education to allow pupils to make up their own minds, on the basis of the evidence and through discussion. That discussion should take place in one class, rather than one half of the debate taking part in religious studies and the other half taking place in science lessons.
Comments: During the next few days and weeks, as the fiasco dominated the letters pages of the serious newspapers, I sent numerous unpublished letters, which can best be summed up by the following unpublished letter to The Observer. For an even longer version of this letter, see “Creationism”.
The recent press coverage of the creationism in schools controversy has been characterised by the usual polarisations and misrepresentations. Like George Bush saying “You’re either with us or against us”, atheistic scientists like to portray this as a conflict and choice between young-earth creationists and neo-Darwinists. In reality, there is a full spectrum between those two extreme positions, at any point in which people can, and do, take up positions. The chief stances are young-earth creationism, old-earth creationism, intelligent design, intelligent creationism, theistic evolution, vitalist evolution, Lamarckian evolution, neutralist evolution and what Steven Rose has called ultra-Darwinism.
Scientists are always banging on about evidence, and it is true that geological evidence is at odds with young-earth creationism (unless of course it had been deliberately planted in order to send the faithless on the wrong track), but young-earth creationism is an extremely minority stance, especially in Europe. Some of the scientific evidence seems at odds with old-earth creationism, but, thereafter, the evidence doesn’t really shed any clear light on the matter. The scientific evidence undoubtedly points to evolution, but what difference would we necessarily be able to detect between natural evolution and controlled evolution? And if controlled evolution happened in jumps, from one species straight to the next in line in one generation, what difference would there be between that and creationism? The real difference between most modern-day creationists and most evolutionists is not over whether evolution happened but over whether it happened naturally.
Science undoubtedly will (or perhaps I should say ‘would’, given the current state of the planet) explain how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, and how complex organisms evolved from primitive ones, and how the infinitely complex chemical interactions in every living cell happen. But it cannot explain why the Big Bang happened, why life emerged and evolved, or why molecules behave the way they do in living cells. Their belief that it all happened naturally is an act of faith.
The existence of a universe, complete with at least one species capable of perceiving it and wondering about its origins, is so mind-boggling that any attempt to explain it is bound to seem preposterous. To many people, the idea that it was deliberately created by some supernatural entity must legitimately seem no more unlikely than a universe that spontaneously created itself and complex living creatures formed by chance (aided by natural selection, of course). If you can conceive of an entity capable of creating a universe, then presumably creating primitive living organisms, causing them to evolve, and making the evidence look convincingly natural would be pieces of cake by comparison.
We are still profoundly ignorant, and anything is possible. Religious creeds do themselves no favours with their certainties and differences, but scientists also will not win the hearts and minds of the confused public by rubbishing the opposition and staking arrogant, unfounded claims to the truth. What is needed is sensible, rational, respectful debate, both in society at large and in classrooms.
Comments: The following letter was sent to the magazine, Resurgence, in response to an article in the November/December issue, but was not published.
Underlying Will Tuttle’s impassioned plea for veganism (What then should we eat? Resurgence 251) is a dangerous anthropocentricity. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that animals are inefficient and ecologically-damaging processors of grain products and other foods, the logical consequence of his argument is that all animals which compete with us for those foods should be culled, or at least be prevented from being born in future. Don’t other animals have as much right to existence as we do?
This leads to the best argument against vegetarianism/veganism on moral or sentimental grounds. The vast majority of all the cows, pigs, sheep and chickens that have ever existed have done so because we have eaten them and their products. If everyone in the world became vegetarian or vegan, all those animals could not be permitted to exist. Far from being guiltily responsible for the deaths of animals, carnivores can actually feel responsible for the very lives of those animals. At the root of this is the question, “Is it better to have lived and died young than never to have lived at all?” If your answer is “No”, then by all means become a vegan on a planet with far fewer animals. If your answer is “Yes”, as I suspect most people’s answer would be, then it is better to campaign for more humane farming practices than to become a vegetarian or vegan.
Comments: My second most triumphant published letter, which set the tone for how I had determined to approach 2009, was in The Independent.
“I think we should do something better in 2009 than just celebrate Darwin”, says his great-great-grandchild, Ruth Padel (Darwin’s Descendant, December 12). I couldn’t agree more. Let’s also mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamarck’s “Philosophie Zoologique” – the most truly revolutionary book about evolution ever written. Let’s also acknowledge that, after 200 years of having been generally believed to have got evolution theory wrong, the science of epigenetics is now showing that Lamarck got it right, as a small minority of evolutionists have believed all along. Let’s celebrate Lamarck in 2009.
Comments: When the Creationism in schools controversy flared again in December, I sent the following letter to The Guardian, but it was not published. Neither was the next letter.
Richard Dawkins thinks it is a national disgrace that 29% of science teachers are open-minded enough to think that the subject of our origins warrants discussion (Would you Adam and Eve it? 23 December). The real disgrace is that neo-Darwinists persist in portraying this issue as a conflict between creationism and evolution and a choice between Biblical literalism and neo-Darwinism.
Yes, young-earth creationism is clearly preposterous, especially if you imagine the creator to be an old man in a robe, with a large white beard, working like Frankenstein in a heavenly laboratory. But if you expand the time frames in line with geological evidence and consider the creator to be some kind of spirit, like life in fact, getting down among the molecules, then it is not so ridiculous.
The scientific evidence may all point to evolution, but would we be able to detect the difference between natural evolution and controlled evolution? And if controlled evolution happened in jumps, from one species straight to the next in line in one generation, would that be any different from creationism? Modern-day creationists are not the Bible-thumpers of yesteryear, and many of the intelligent ones fully accept the evidence of science with regard to the fact of evolution. They just deny that it was naturalistic evolution.
Personally, I am surprised that creationism is not much more widespread, given the level of religious belief there is, even in Britain. I mean, what purpose does the evocation of a God serve if not to create the universe, set up primitive living organisms and cause them to evolve?
Madeleine Bunting is right to say Darwin shouldn’t be hijacked by New Atheists (Comment, 29 December). A much more appropriate candidate would be Edwin Hubble.
There has never been any incompatibility between evolution, as most people understand it, and religion, including modern creationism. The most that can be said about even neo-Darwinism is that it obviates the necessity for God in explaining the number and diversity of species. However, until Hubble’s observations led to the Big Bang Theory, there was still a need to evoke God for the explanation of the existence of the Universe. It was Hubble who made atheism defensible.
Continue to 2009