Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work, The Origin of Species, was published 24 November, 1859, 150 years ago today. This makes a rather neat bookend to the Darwin Bicentenary, the year of events commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on 12 February, 1809. I’m going to be lazy and simply link to everything I wrote back concerning that earlier anniversary.
Oh, and serendipitously, today is also the anniversary of the discovery of Lucy in 1974. I saw her in person (behind glass) on a trip to Seattle during last year’s fall break, which was pretty cool.
His achievements were prodigious; his science, meticulous. His work transformed our understanding of the planet and of ourselves.
At the same time, he was a humane, gentle, decent man, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. Judging by his letters, he was also sometimes quite funny. He was, in other words, one of those rare beings, as likeable as he was impressive.
… progressive Christian theology … has long emphasized the continuity of the human with the rest of creation. Progressive Christians by and large oppose regarding human nature as fixed and static and a unique “lord of creation.” The inescapable learning from evolutionary biology is that human beings are deeply creatures. We share 90% of our genes with mice. If that doesn’t take the “lords of creation” down a peg, I fail to see what will!
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and 150 years since he published his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species. The Origin provided the first widely-accepted explanation for the evolution of life on Earth, and, although Darwin was wrong on some points (if only he had known about genes!), a century and a half of scientific work has shown that he was right about more.
That century and a half has not diffused the perception, especially in the United States and other highly religious countries, that acceptance of a scientific account for the history of life is antithetical to religion. As a Darwinian and a Christian, this is a topic with which I struggle, and about which I’ve written a great deal here. Although I’m not sure that science can coexist with a real belief in the supernatural, I do hold that science is both compatible with the moral questions at the heart of religion and essential to answering them.
For Darwin’s 200th, then, I’d like to briefly present three examples of evolutionary insights that complement the Christian moral perspective. I focus on Christianity here (and elsewhere in this blog) not because I think it has an exclusive hold on the truth, but because it is the tradition in which I was raised, and the one that shapes my own moral perspective. I think the following points are easily applicable to just about any other moral system, religious or non.
Our evolutionary past shapes us today.
Christianity (and, indeed, most other religions) starts from the fundamental problem of human behavior: We do things that we know are hurtful to those around us, often because we enjoy doing them. As the apostle wrote, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)
In the Sermon on the Mount, though, Jesus lays out a moral model that calls us beyond what comes naturally:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-2)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matt. 5:43-6)
Evolutionary thinking can help us realize Christ’s call.
When we understand the deep causes of hurtful behavior, we can figure out better how to overcome them. To pick just one example: Jesus proposes a moral solution to the problem of hostility to strangers mentioned above in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when he redefines the concept of “neighbor” to mean something bigger than “people of the same race/religion.” But how do we overcome deep-seated biases against people who don’t look like us? One new study suggests hacking the mental habits that create those biases in the first place, by making the effort to become familiar with people of other races – Caucasian volunteers trained to better differentiate between African American faces showed reduced evidence of bias against African Americans.
Like the Christian moral model, the evolutionary perspective understands that humans are imperfect – but suggests ways we can do better. This is why it pains me to hear other Christians dismiss evolutionary science out of hand (apart from my nerdy compulsions to correct factual error): Understanding evolution can help us in our ongoing struggle to live together, if only we’re open to the data science provides. The current advances in our understanding of human behavior are only possible because today’s researchers stand on the shoulders of a giant: Charles Darwin.
J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237
K. Foster, T. Wenseleers, F. Ratnieks (2006). Kin selection is the key to altruism Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21 (2), 57-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2005.11.020
J.D. Greene (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment Science, 293 (5537), 2105-8 DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872
As part of its special coverage of Darwin’s 200th, the New York Times has a very well put-together presentation of The Origin of Species, with annotation of key passages by working scientists. The complete text of the first edition is also offered for download [PDF], if you haven’t got it already.
Schluter contrasts ecological speciation, in which reproductive isolation arises in the course of adaptation to different environments, “mutation-order” speciation – isolation arising by the accumulation of different genetic and morphological changes in the course of adaptation to the same (or the same kind of) environment. That is, natural selection can cause a population to split into two species if different parts of population are “solving” different ecological problems, or if they arrive at different “answers” to the same problem.
The mutation-order scenario makes sense, though it’s new to me. As an example, Schluter cites a recent study in Mimulus in which a mutation of the mitochondrial DNA in one population creates sterile males in hybridization with other populations [$-a]. He proposes that much mutation-order speciation occurs because of conflict between different levels of natural selection, as when “selfish genes” create reproductive incompatibilities in the course of spreading through a host population. This is a departure from what biologists usually consider speciation by natural selection, but Schluter makes an interesting point.
A.L. Case, J.H. Willis (2008). Hybrid male sterility in Mimulus (Phrymaceae) is associated with a geographically restricted mitochondrial rearrangement Evolution, 62 (5), 1026-39 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00360.x
D. Schluter (2009). Evidence for ecological speciation and its alternative Science, 323 (5915), 737-41 DOI: 10.1126/science.1160006