We just celebrated Charles Darwin’s bicentennial birthday (February 12th) and as we’re marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species this year, I cannot shake the disappointment that so many members of our species don’t accept the theory of evolution. Why? Is it because of a conflict between science and religion? Or, is it misinformation and ignorance in this 21st century? Do we really need to know this stuff about our origins?
Science and modernity pose great challenges to traditional societies and their cultures. Culture usually means repetition. The more primitive a society is, the more warnings it has against change. Now, throw into the mix the national myths that make people feel special, elevate certain beliefs onto the level of identity, and indeed change has the speed of molasses. This was more or less expected in the old world with limited knowledge, education and access to reliable information. But, why today?
It is understandable that any challenge to a person’s (or a whole society’s) identity is perceived as a great threat. Well, at least by those who aren’t really confident in their belief system. How many people really re-think, re-evaluate what they “know” ? We know stuff because we were told, instructed, indoctrinated, and by repeating “known” universal truths. Of course, there’s another way, that of critical inquiry, but this would also require a high level of confidence. The latter is necessary for amending views and practices. Swimming against the current can be lonely at times, dangerous, and requires lots of effort. Thankfully, there have been several brave thinkers and bold actors that helped human society progress. Some of them paid dearly for being intellectually honest.
Pursuing the evidence no matter where it leads is a great human ability, but one should be prepared to face reality, which may include something unpleasant. By observation and reasoning, Galileo confirmed that the Earth is not the center of the solar system. The universe seemed that it wasn’t a complementary structure revolving around humanity. Darwin—a creationist, and a man bound for clergy—came to the conclusion that humans had evolved from lower forms of life, and that the human species was not created in its present form in the image of God. His theory of evolution—one of the strongest scientific theories we’ve got—has been tested and confirmed many times over. For example, genetics, the DNA, archaeology, carbon-dating, and several other ways & disciplines have confirmed his theory.
Turkey is aspiring to join other liberal democracies in Europe while banning books and stifling free expression. Access to information—for example, to famous biologist Richard Dawkins’s site—is restricted. The argument, which apparently has won in Turkish courts, that “offensive” material shouldn’t be allowed. Obviously, there’s nothing under the sun that cannot be deemed offensive by someone somewhere.
Offending “Turkish values and culture” can land you in jail, or, worse, bring a death sentence in the court of public opinion. I wonder how many Greeks would defend the principle of free speech when it offends the majority. How many self-described descendants of the democratic Athenians would allow a Socrates today to challenge the public wisdom and long-held beliefs?
P.S. Darwin published The Origin of Species on November 22, 1859, when he was 50 years old. Science was primitive then. He developed his theory over many years, and kept refining it by answering his critics’ arguments. That’s the scientific way. A scientific theory isn’t a hunch, a guess, or revealed knowledge. It’s based on evidence, it’s testable, it predicts, and always allows for amendment—when better evidence comes along. A weak theory is one that isn’t testable or changeable.