By George Levine
How could Darwin still be controversial? We do not worry a lot about Isaac Newton, nor even about Albert Einstein, whose ideas have been among the powerful shapers of modern Western culture. Yet for many people, undisturbed by the law of gravity or by the theories of relativity that, I would venture, 99% of us don’t really understand, Darwin remains darkly threatening. One of the great figures in the history of Western thought, he was respectable and revered enough even in his own time to be buried in Westminster Abbey, of all places. He supported his local church; he was a Justice of the Peace; and he never was photographed as a working scientist, only as a gentleman and a family man. Yet a significant proportion of people in the English-speaking world vociferously do not “believe” in him.
Darwin is resisted not because he was wrong but because his ideas apply not only to the ants, and bees, and birds, and anthropoids, but to us. His theory is scary to many people because it seems to them it lessens our dignity and deprives our ethics of a foundation. The problem, of course, is that, like the theories of gravity and relativity, it is true.
At the heart of this very strange phenomenon there is a fundamental crisis of secularism. Secularism is not simply disbelief; it is not equivalent to atheism. Many supporters of secularism, like the distinguished Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, are believers. The most important aspect of secularism is that it is a condition of peaceful coexistence of otherwise antithetical faiths. In a secular state, diverse religions must agree that on matters of civil order and organization there is an institution to which they will all defer in what Taylor has described as “overlapping consensus.” They may disagree about God but they have to agree that in civil society they will adhere to the laws of the country.
But what happens when the overlapping consensus doesn’t overlap? This brings us to a very complicated problem: the authority of the specialist. In a democratic society, it is the responsibility of each of us to stay informed on issues that matter to the polity, and to make judgments, usually through established institutions, school boards, for example, or national elections. At the same time, our society usually sanctions the training of professionals, and forces them to undergo rigorous training, tests them to be sure of their qualifications.
Within professions, there will inevitably be learned and crucial squabbling and exploration, and new theories piled on top of old ones, or revising them. But these squabbles are part of what it is to be professional and they rarely reach the ears of the lay population. When science as an institution sanctions evolutionary theory (and squabbles about how it works), and its most distinguished practitioners insist that evolution is the foundation of all modern biology and by way of that theory make ever expanding discoveries about our health, a significant portion of the population accuse them of mere prejudice against doubters. People insist they don’t “believe” in Darwin, when they haven’t read him, don’t understand the theory to which they object, and seem unaware that evolutionary biology, though perhaps founded on Darwin, has long since made the nature of Darwin’s belief irrelevant to the validity of modern science.
Imagine a scientific community that allowed published papers to be reviewed by lay people, or simply published them without being reviewed by experts in the field. Imagine if The New England Journal of Medicine, or Nature, accepted papers which had not produced adequate evidence to make their cases, or distorted and misrepresented the evidence. Would that be a reasonable and democratic opening to equally valid opinions or would it produce a scandal and outrage of enormous proportions, and a lot lawsuits? Imagine if Federal Institutions allowed the sale of untested drugs. There are enough mistakes made even with review.
The crisis of secularity in democratic societies lies just in this kind of problem. I am not claiming that the solution is easy. “Overlapping consensus” is an extraordinarily hard condition to sustain since every sect and every religion believes that its truth is truer than the others’. But the consensus in democratic society must make space for evolution, at least until someone advances a more plausible and evidentially supported theory. This crisis seems to me to be the plainest evidence of how critical to modern democracy secularism is, and how difficult it is to sustain.
I offer no solution to the crisis, but in the case of Darwin’s theory, at least, I would suggest that we recognize that what drives “disbelief” in him is an entirely remediable state of feeling, which when translated into apparently rational and scientific discourse, as in the attempt to argue for “Intelligent Design,” is simply deceptive and, dare I say it, wrong. Reconsidering the problem of how we “feel” about ideas, even ideas we don’t like, is usually more important, practically speaking, than whether the ideas are right or wrong – which, in the end, tends to be the province of those experts I have talked about. Disbelief in Darwin is largely based on fear of the moral and spiritual consequences of recognizing evolutionary theory, but objectors might notice emotionally satisfying possibilities that Darwin himself felt. “When we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!” Darwin’s Nature becomes a wonderland of connections and meanings. If we can shift our perspective to recognize that Darwin’s theory is no threat to us humans, but one that opens up enormous possibilities and gives us a fresh kind of dignity, the dignity of risking new knowledge, the kinds of fruitless and destructive controversy that lingers around Darwin’s name might finally disappear. “When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”
Now a visiting professor at Gallatin College, New York University, George Levine is Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University, where in almost forty years of teaching Victorian literature and the study of the relations between science and literature, he combined his own passion for nature with his literary scholarship. His latest book is Darwin the Writer.