Editorial: Incredible Mr Darwin
The more science uncovers, the more brilliant the father of evolution is revealed to be
Darwin Day, on 12 February, celebrates the birth of the father of evolution, whose Origin of Species shocked Victorian Britain and ushered in the modern age. Since his ideas directly challenge the biblical account of creation, placing science and reason above myth and faith, he’s a great humanist hero and a loathed figure among fundamentalists.
Today, the arguments still rage, with Christian lobbyists here insisting on the teaching of creation theory alongside evolution in some of our new academy schools, and US campaigners attempting to ban the teaching of evolution completely. There’s a growing movement advocating the notion of “intelligent design”, which seeks to discredit Darwin’s discoveries and to emphasise the gaps in his theory.
Everyone agrees that he didn’t get everything right. He was mistaken about the age of the Earth – by about four thousand million years. He believed there were land bridges between today’s continents. And he was wrong about the mechanism of inheritance. Huge advances in scientific research have overturned many of Darwin’s assumptions. Even at the time, he was keenly aware of potential faults in his hypotheses.
But what he was most mistaken about was just how right he was. The recent discovery of the fossil of Indohyus – a small deer-like creature which is an ancestor of the modern whale – provides the “missing link” between whales and their distant land-dwelling ancestors, rebutting the claim of creationists that it is simply too far-fetched to imagine that a creature which started life hairy on land could end up smooth-bodied in the oceans.
This is just one of many recent discoveries that serve to confirm Darwin’s grand theory rather than to undermine it.
So, to commemorate Darwin Day we’ve brought him back to life and invited four leading scientific commentators to join him for dinner. We asked them to discuss what developments there have been in the study of biology in the 125 years since Darwin’s death, and how well his ideas have survived. Find out what geneticist Steve Jones would tell him about DNA, what fossils biologist Jerry Coyne would show him and why science journalist James Randerson thinks he’d like Star Wars.
It’s fitting that historian John Van Wyhe decided to bring Darwin a copy of the TV series Life on Earth. As Laurie Taylor discovers in his interview with David Attenborough, his monumental documenting of the natural world, combining rigorous scientific observation with an endless sense of wonder, makes him a worthy successor to the great man and a continuous reminder that all the faith we need is here on Earth.
This issue is packed with our kind of faith. You can find out why it’s okay to love luxury, why restraint can also be a virtue and why the world isn’t going to end just yet. And David Rich shows how reason is helping to create a rapprochement between the UK government and Islam. But we also bring you some stark reminders of the dangers of unreason. There’s David Belden’s account of the evangelical take-over of the US military; Stan Cohen’s exposé of the false logic that justifies torture; and Elizabeth Wilson’s call to atheist arms against religious tyranny.
So do enjoy our natural selection of stimulation, provocation and evolution. And happy Darwin Day.