Origin of Species Day! G’wan – taunt a Creationist. Then Evolve.
Today is the 157th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species (1859). It’s a good moment to reflect not only on the evidential logic and explanatory power of Darwin’s work, but also the peculiar beauty of the theory. Persons of an avowedly religious persuasion have spent rather too much time attacking Darwin and rather less time considering the extent to which Natural Selection ties us all together.
Margaret Atwood’s recent sci-fi eco-apocalyptic trilogy creates a group called “God’s Gardeners” who have managed to absorb Darwinian evolution into a holistic vision of life in all its dazzling variety. She creates a whimsical, eclectic, but not unsympathetic religion – subject to various practical and definitional problems – but nonetheless appealing.
I remember I was about ten years old when the BBC did a double-Darwin on me. Maybe these programmes were months apart, but they appeared to come on top of each other. First, there was David Attenborough’s great 1970s Life on Earth documentary series. This was the series which produced the great Gorilla hugging and bonding sequence which still qualifies as one of the greatest TV moments in the history of the world ever. And then there was the Voyage of the Beagle – a drama series showing the young Darwin travelling the world, making notes, and starting to ask questions that would trouble the pious Captain Fitzroy. I can recall the whole family watching both shows and launching into discussions about evolution and its implications. See – this really was the golden age of television – a family watching programmes that inform the young without patronising them. Let’s hear if for 1978 and the BBC.
Natural selection works. All it needs is a long enough time line – and geology gave it the timeline it needed. Evolution also reminds us that we are part of a larger “creation” – or should I say “creative momentum”. There’s nothing ignoble about being descended from ape like creatures. “Ancestry” is an Epimethean obsession – one that leads to sterility. “Ancestry” – distinctiveness of bloodline – is an obsession that leads to the seventeenth-century Spanish Hapsburgs – and where does that lead us? The Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession – corpse-strewn battlefields.
No – the humbler the ancestry – the more inspiring the trajectory of exfoliation and the more delightful the prospect of extrapolation.
If you should meet a creationist today, on “Evolution Day” (and I know it’s unlikely – I myself meet very few) – and they start priding themselves on the stability of their own supposed ancestry – start priding yourself on your posterity.
G’wan – let’s all try and evolve a bit today.