February 11, 2009
WASHINGTON–Polls, particularly in the United States, tell us that many conservatives still distrust Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The bicentennial of his birth should be a fitting occasion for the right to take another look at a man who contributed immensely to some ideas that it holds dear.
Darwin was not an atheist but a Victorian believer. He was not a proto-Marxist but a liberal, which in 19th-century Britain meant someone who favored individual liberty over big government. Darwin was an admirer of John Locke and Adam Smith, two of the greatest thinkers of freedom. And although he was influenced by Malthus, whose writings on overpopulation were later used by critics of capitalism to justify collectivism, Darwin used that political economist’s ideas in biology, not political economy.
Darwin did not set out to deny God. Anyone who has read The Origin of Species, The Descent of
Man or his correspondence is immediately struck by how careful Darwin was to avoid what we would today call an “ideological agenda.” But this diligent student of nature did make one shattering discovery: not the theory of evolution itself, which had been proposed many times and can be traced back to the Greeks, but the fact that evolution is a random process of natural selection whereby certain variations that become well-adapted to the environment are gradually preserved through hereditary transmission. Ultimately, all species have a common origin.
This finding posed a cataclysmic challenge to the established church, comparable to the reexamination of Aristotle in the 12th and 13th centuries or the displacement of the Earth from the center of the universe in the 16th and 17th centuries. But unlike the teachings of Aristotle, which were absorbed by the church through Thomas Aquinas, and the findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, which were reconciled with religion by rational Christianity and Deism, Darwin’s books have remained anathema to many believers. The pope finally accepted his teachings in the 1990s and the Anglican Church recently apologized to him. But for millions of Christians, Darwin remains unacceptable.
And yet science has confirmed and expanded Darwin’s theory, using it to great advantage. What
he called the “mystery” of variation in offspring was explained by modern genetics. DNA sequencing and molecular biology have helped to understand the evolution of viruses and therefore to protect people from diseases.
Darwin’s teachings have been caricatured and grossly distorted. Social Darwinism, which turned
his biological theory into a sociopolitical one to justify eugenics, harmed his reputation. But
Darwin was an early opponent of slavery and, precisely because he identified a common origin in
nature, he did more than anybody to debunk the notion that different races belong to different
Herein should lie Darwin’s appeal to the right: The English naturalist gave scientific validity to the
revolutionary idea that order can be spontaneous, neither designed by nor beholden to an all powerful authority. The struggle for existence that drives natural selection according to Darwin has nothing predetermined about it. In fact, he maintained that the presence of certain habits, values and institutions, including religion–themselves part of man’s adaptation to the environment–can impact evolution. The instinct of sympathy, for instance, drives some stronger members of the human species to help weaker ones, thereby mitigating the struggle for existence.
It is fascinating that conservatives who advocate for a spontaneous order–the free market–in political economy and decry social engineering as a threat to progress and civilization should resent Darwin’s overwhelming case for the idea that order can design itself. In an essay in the British publication The Spectator, the conservative science writer Matt Ridley reflects on the paradox that the left has claimed Darwin even though leftist political ideas contradict his basic teaching: “In the average European biology laboratory you will find fervent believers in the individualist, emergent, decentralized properties of genomes who prefer dirigiste determinism to bring order to the economy.”
The bicentennial of Darwin’s birth is a good opportunity for those on the right who trash him as
an icon of the left to give the author of The Origin of Species another chance.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of “Lessons from the