Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1809 of Charles Darwin, and also the anniversary of the publication in 1859 of On The Origin of Species. Someone, somewhere decided to dub this "Darwin Day" and to encourage celebrations, discussions, public presentations, etc., etc.

Of course the really big party will be two years from today, on the bi- and sesquicentennial.

In observance of the day, I offer the following news story from Agence France-Presse, the link for which was first sent to me by a colleague some days ago. The original story is dated February 2, 2007.

PARIS (AFP) - Tens of thousands of French schools and universities have received copies of a Turkish book refuting Darwin's theory of evolution and describing it as "the true source of terrorism."

The education ministry said Friday that it had warned school and university directors that the textbook is not in line with the recognized curriculum and that they should disregard it.

Entitled "The Atlas of Creation," the 770-page book by Turkish author Harun Yahya quotes several passages from the Koran and asserts that "human beings did not evolve (from another species) but were indeed created." . . .

The book features a photograph of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center with the caption: "Those who perpetuate terror in the world are in fact Darwinists. Darwinism is the only philosophy that values and incites conflict.

"The theories of Charles Darwin are "the true source of terrorism," it said.

Where to begin? To address all of the problems with the claims in the textbook would take more time than I am willing to spend today. I offer here one line of thinking, in brief.

The argument that "Darwinism" is a "philosophy" that "values and incites conflict" is problematic on a number of fronts. Perhaps most notable is the assumption that all human actions can be traced back to intellectual roots, so that only a "philosophy" of conflict can lead to actual conflict. It would seem to follow, then, that the actions of someone who claims to act on a "philosophy" of compassion or justice must necessarily be compassionate and just. Since Islam embodies ideals of compassion and justice (so the textbook's author claims elsewhere), then anything any Muslim does must necessarily be compassionate and just.

It would also seem to follow that there could have been no conflict - or perhaps no "true" conflict - in the world prior to February 12, 1859.

This is, to say the very least, implausible. Why, just this morning I heard a story on NPR about the original split between Sunnis and Shiites in the decades after the death of the Prophet, and the wholesale slaughter that ensued over which version of compassion and justice should rule the day.

Don't get me wrong here: I do not mean to pick on Islam. There are all manner of horrors in the history of other religions and ideologies, many of which embraced principles of compassion and justice.

As it happens, there is ample room in Darwinian theory (which is a scientific theory, not a "philosophy") for compassion and justice among human beings. Yes, there is a struggle for survival among living things on earth, and the struggle is sometimes (but not nearly always) violent. But, Darwin argued in The Descent of Man, social animals can gain an advantage in this struggle when they cooperate with one another. Darwin traces the origin of "the moral sense" to a kind of social instinct: those who are able to experience compassion for others are more likely to cooperate with others, and so they are more likely to thrive and reproduce than those who are unable to experience compassion for others.

As I have argued elsewhere (in an article to be published this month, in fact), there are some problems with this kind of empirical approach to ethics, but at least Darwin's account allows us to distinguish between conflict or struggle in the wider world of nature and cooperation and solidarity within the human community.

Darwin's account also points toward the importance of at least one variety of moral imagination: the ability to see the world through the eyes of others.

I would even go so far as to suggest that it points toward a different source of terrorism, not in any particular philosophy, or religion, or ideology, but in a simple lack of compassion. Those who brought down the World Trade Center were not rampaging Darwinists, but men who had, for whatever reason, suffered a catastrophic failure of moral imagination.

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