Why Darwin Matters

evolutionI found one book that deals rather well with the perceived struggle between Christian fundamentalist religion and the science of Evolution. The book is Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer. Shermer started as a creationist, was educated in the sciences, and is a strong advocate of not only the undeniability of the theory of Evolution but also for the way natural selection is perhaps a better supporter for religious or spiritual interpretations of life on this planet than revelation and faith.

As Shermer writes: Evolution Makes For Good Theology. His discussion of the evolution of morality is especially convincing and in no way negates religion but rather shows that religion has a firm purpose in our lives .. a purpose that developed naturally along with the other cultural developments that defined the early humans. And Shermer makes his case convincingly using logic, reason and clear evidence, never requiring magic or miracles.

As a corollary to this, Shermer also shows how elements in the history of the evolving species we call man can provide an insight into man’s propensity for violence and brutality, lying and cheating, and still allow for sharing and altruism, loving and nurturing.

Shermer discusses how Evolution enhances and validates many elements of our cultural growth. Here is an example of this in Shermer’s chapter on Evolution and the Conservative Theory of Free Market Economics:

“Political conservatives can also find explanations—and foundations—in the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is precisely parallel to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. Darwin focused on showing how complex design and ecological balance were unintended consequences of individual competition among organisms. Smith focused on showing how national wealth and social harmony were unintended consequences of individual competition among people. The natural economy mirrors the artificial economy. Conservatives embrace free market capitalism, and they are against excessive top-down governmental regulation of the economy; they understand that the most efficient economy emerges from the complex, bottom-up behaviors of individuals pursuing their own self-interest without awareness of the larger consequences of their actions.

DNAAdam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy who posited a theory of human nature with competing motives: We are both competitive and cooperative, altruistic and selfish. There are times of need when we can count on the humanity of strangers to help us, but daily trade in a marketplace is founded on the lesser angels of our natures. As Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” By allowing individuals to follow their natural inclination to pursue their self-love, the country as a whole will prosper, almost as if the entire system were being directed by . . . yes . . . an invisible hand. It is here that we find the one and only use of the metaphor in The Wealth of Nations:

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. . . . He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Compare this to Darwin’s description of what happens in nature when organisms pursue their self-love with no cognizance of the unintended consequences of their behavior:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”

So conservatives want a bottom-up approach to government, positing that giving the individuals freedom will trickle up to the higher forms of organization but they continue to insist that wealth will trickle down from the millionaires and billionaires to the individuals far far below them on the economic scale. Is this confusing? Government should be bottom-up but business should be top-down; freedom and independence should be bottom-up but faith and religion should be top-down.

Finally, this graphic doesn’t speak highly of American Exceptionalism when it comes to mature thinking:

belief in evolution

2 thoughts on “Why Darwin Matters

  1. Shermer is an interesting character in the skeptic (anti-creationist) community and somewhat controversial (though I think he makes sense about evolution and theistic issues). The real issue that underlies the opinion graph you posted is this didn’t just happen, a well-funded movement (almost exclusively in U.S.) has drastically shifted the U.S. opinion poll results. It is an attack on all science with biology as an easy target. People don’t really understand what evolution really is (even the graphic (ape to man) you show is considered misleading from scientific POV) but get told it’s a myth and a conspiracy where scientists (viewed as just another interest groups) lie. Of course the funding comes from people who need the public to become anti-science, since it is really climate science (and the profits of carbon industries) that are at stake. The overall effort is very similar to the defense of tobacco a while back (in fact many of the same people are involved).

    Additionally the point you make, the inconsistency of cherry picking when top-down is good or bad is also very much part of the propaganda plan. Government and science lies, but of course business and religion is always honest and acts in the interest of the public. It’s an easy sale to people who don’t think about it very much.

    And it’s an uneven battle. Science is not a political advocacy group and has few skills (and even less funding) to promote its views. Scientists speak in nuance, always looking at what the facts can support and advocates are free to project any tone they want, fact-free or fact-distorting. Basically it’s hard for scientists to lie because their whole training and being emphasize a search for truth, not selling a POV. So evolution (and climate change) is so completely obvious that the science “establishment” (such as it is) just puts out the facts and expects people to look at those and make informed decisions; the other side doesn’t bother with a search for truth since they already have the answer from their self-interest (whether economic or dogmatic).

    So thanks for publicizing this work and your ideas on the subject as people on the side of truth need to stand up and at least attempt to balance the paid-for falsehoods.


    1. As a long time subscriber and reader of Skeptic (magazine) it is obvious that there is far more to the skeptic community than just being anti-creationist. For those who are not familiar with Skeptic or with Michael Shermer or with skepticism in general, take a peek at the Skeptic Societies website which includes the magazine, Skeptic ( http://www.skeptic.com ).


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