A love letter to Charles Darwin

This is a love story. It is one that has grown over the years and the relationship I have with this love is unique in one crucial way: it is based on evidence.

My love, dear reader, is for the theory of evolution by natural selection. It all began one summer when I was working as a tree planter in northern Alberta. I would recommend that form of work to anyone who likes the outdoors, but you will do well to prepare for a good deal of downtime as you travel from place to place. I realized it was the perfect chance to figure out two problems that had been plaguing me for most of my life: if God exists, and, if the answer is no, then how does one explain the world?

The path was arduous (and in some sense continues), but with the help of many conversations and a good deal of reading — the Bible, the Quran, and C.S. Lewis represented the “yes” side — I eventually decided that the answer to the question of God’s existence is “no.” One particular author who helped me was Richard Dawkins, whose case against God is only bettered by his knowledge of evolutionary biology.

While Dawkins is great at explanation, the majority of his work has focused on making contemporary the works of the originator of the theory of evolution by natural selection: Charles Darwin. Earlier this year was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and November 24 is the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species’ publication. I have discussed Darwin’s specific achievements elsewhere, so I wish to point out other valuable things my relationship with evolution has done for me.

Mark Twain said, “When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain.” I take his point, but science has taught me one thing that also applies to love: nothing should be accepted unconditionally, even love. Lots of people say we ought to love unconditionally, but it’s really a silly concept. We can all think of cases where a person would be justified not loving someone anymore. So it is with evolution. I know exactly what it would take to make me change my mind about its truth and all scientific theories have this capacity of falsifiability. There’s no need for faith, evidence is sufficient. Evolution, though, is particularly lovable because of how much it explains with so little, so long as that little bit is understood correctly.

Many think evolution leads to the rejection of God (which I think is right), but they also think that evolution has something to say about how we are to live. This is wrong. Evolution describes the world, including how humans came to be; but it says nothing about one way of life being right or wrong. This is why all those who believe accepting evolution will lead to eugenics or unprotected sex or more people weight lifting misunderstand the point. The limits of evolution are nothing to lament. Knowing the boundaries of a theory prevents mistaken application, which have certainly happened under the guise of evolution.

Unfortunately people allow this error to cause them to reject evolution. The other major reason, of course, is a misunderstanding about the science of evolution, which is exemplified in Sarah Palin’s new book, where she finds it impossible to believe that “thinking, loving beings originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea.” Although it’s sad, science has an advantage over such rejection: it can show why it’s right, while the case against evolution is no stronger than Palin’s belief. That’s something even love can’t do.

The greatest gift from evolution is that we understand more about the world than we did before. There is less left to conjecture or guesswork and the value of science in general is its ability to explain our place in the world. The result is humbling as we reposition humanity not as the centre of a creation with us solely in mind, but as a species lucky to be alive to enjoy our time here.

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