O. Wilson is a professor of entomology at Harvard University.
This extract is from So Simple a Beginning:
Darwin's four great books, to be published in December by W.W. Norton.
IT IS surpassingly strange that half of Americans recently polled (2004) not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all. Americans are certainly capable of belief, and with rock-like conviction if it originates in religious dogma. In evidence is the 60 per cent that accept the prophecies of the Bible's Book of Revelation as truth, and in yet more evidence is the weight that faith-based positions hold in political life. Most of the religious right opposes the teaching of evolution in public schools, either by an outright ban on the subject or, at the least, by insisting that it be treated as "only a theory" rather than a "fact".
Yet biologists are unanimous in concluding that evolution is a fact. The evidence they and thousands of others have adduced over 150 years falls together in intricate and interlocking detail. The multitudinous examples range from the small changes in DNA sequences observed as they occur in real time to finely graded sequences within larger evolutionary changes in the fossil record. Further, on the basis of comparably strong evidence, natural selection grows ever stronger as the prevailing explanation of evolution.
Many who accept
the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a non sequitur. It is in essence the following: there are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there must be a supernatural designer at work. The designer is seldom specified, but in the canon of intelligent design it is most certainly not Satan and his angels, nor any god or gods conspicuously different from those accepted in the believer's faith.
Flipping the scientific argument upside down, the intelligent designers join the strict creationists (who insist that no evolution ever occurred) by arguing that scientists resist the supernatural theory because it is counter to their own personal secular beliefs. This may have a kernel of truth; everybody suffers from some amount of bias. But in this case bias is easily overcome. The critics forget how the reward system in science works. Any researcher who can prove the existence of intelligent design within the accepted framework of science will make history and achieve eternal fame. They will prove at last that science and religious dogma are compatible. Even a combined Nobel prize and Templeton prize (the latter designed to encourage the search for just such harmony) would fall short as proper recognition. Every scientist would like to accomplish such a epoch-making advance. But no one has even come close, because unfortunately there is no evidence, no theory and no criteria for proof that even marginally might pass for science.
In all of the history of science, only one other disparity of comparable magnitude to evolution has occurred between a scientific event and the impact it has had on the public mind. This was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth, and therefore humanity, is not the centre of the universe, and the universe is not a closed spherical bubble. Copernicus delayed publication of his master work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until the year of his death (1543). For his extension of the idea, Bruno was burned at the stake, and for its documentation Galileo was shown the instruments of torture and remained under house arrest for the remainder of his life
Today we live in a less barbaric age, but an otherwise comparable disjunction between science and religion still roils the public mind. Why does such intense and pervasive resistance to evolution continue 150 years after the publication of On The Origin of Species, and in the teeth of the overwhelming accumulated evidence favouring it? The answer is simply that the Darwinian revolution, even more than the Copernican revolution, challenges the prehistoric and still-regnant self-image of humanity. Evolution by natural selection, to be as concise as possible, has changed everything.
In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.
The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature", people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure
Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called "the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin".
So, will science and religion find common ground, or at least agree to divide the fundamentals into mutually exclusive domains? A great many well-meaning scholars believe that such rapprochement is both possible and desirable. A few disagree, and I am one of them. I think Darwin would have held to the same position. The battle line is, as it has ever been, in biology. The inexorable growth of this science continues to widen, not to close, the tectonic gap between science and faithbased religion.
Rapprochement may be neither possible nor desirable. There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
Religions continue both to render their special services and to exact their heavy costs. Can scientific humanism do as well or better, at a lower cost? Surely that ranks as one of the great unanswered questions of philosophy. It is the noble yet troubling legacy that Charles Darwin left us.