February 12, 2009 -- Of the two famous men born on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln is the one known as a political liberator.
But the other man, Charles Darwin, also deserves recognition on the bicentennial of his birth for his own form of Emancipation Proclamation.
Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 and set forth the thesis that the various kinds of living organisms were not fixed and eternal but, rather, evolved from other, often less complex organisms over millions of years. In the century and a half that followed, this discovery has had a truly liberating effect on humanity.
Understanding evolution has helped us satisfy that quintessential human longing expressed by Aristotle: “All men, by nature, desire to know.” As self-conscious beings, we have a thirst to know the deepest truths about the world around us, its origin and ours, and our place in it. We are pattern-seeking animals who delight in discovery. Such understanding and, indeed, our very survival require us to exercise our rational capacity, the attribute that most distinguishes us from the lower life forms from which we evolved.
Observations, conceptual thinking and critical analysis have, over the centuries, allowed us to replace primitive superstitions with knowledge of objective reality. Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein have helped us understand the physical realm: that it operates with regularity in accordance with causal laws; that it is composed of infinitesimal atoms; that it is vast and includes planets, stars and galaxies; that it is billions of years old. And, of course, knowledge gained through this rational approach allows us to create all of the technologies needed for our survival and flourishing.
Free-market conservatives should appreciate how understanding evolution boosts their case for liberty.
Darwin helped us understand the biological realm. He showed how small variations that naturally occur in living species plus the laws of natural selection in changing environments over long periods of time have produced the diverse plethora of living creatures on this planet. His discoveries explained the fossils of extinct life forms and of the ancestors of creatures living today, including humans, that are found in the strata of rocks dating back millions of years. Darwin’s discoveries were yet another demonstration of the power of the human mind, discoveries that were subsequent confirmed by findings in many other scientific disciplines.
The knowledge of our evolutionary origins helps us to understand how we might act better for our own survival and well-being. For example, scientists in evolutionary biology and psychology today are exploring the nature of our brains: how they came about; how our form of cognition emerged in them; how they operate; how we might better treat brain-based physical and mental impairments; and how we might better exercise the self-control needed for our flourishing.
Understanding our evolutionary origins does not diminish us. Rather, it enables us to marvel at the fact that our minds emerged from nature and then to turn our minds back on nature in order to understand just how our minds emerged.
Sadly, in the United States the facts of evolution have been politically and culturally contentious because of the disastrous religious beliefs that today go under the names “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.” Individuals, mostly on the conservative side of the political spectrum, often twist their own minds in tortuous ways unworthy of intelligent creatures in order to reject discoveries built up through rigorous observation and critical examination in favor of a Biblical fiction they just can’t seem to give up.
Many of these “true believers” have created a cottage industry to promote the culture of ignorance necessary to support their cult beliefs. Witness their terrible waste of time, energy and, yes, human intelligence, over the past century. In the 1925 Scopes Trial these believers sought to uphold a ban on teaching evolution in schools. Today these believers try to force schools to teach Creationism and Intelligent Design as if they were approaches to understanding human origins that are just as valid as a critical, scientific approach. Observe the pointless passions in favor of the false. And consider the corrosive effects of such campaigns against modernity in a culture in desperate need of clear thinking.
Politically conservative Creationists often denounce those on the political left who reject evidence and blind themselves to the consequences of many of their statist policies. Yet such conservatives are guilty of the same willful epistemological crime in their own corner of the culture.
There’s an irony here because of a growing recognition today that Darwin’s understanding of the mechanism of evolution supports many of the views of political conservatives who often reject evolution.
Individuals pursuing their own self-interest will also produce peace and unprecedented prosperity.
Darwin and his successors showed how order and complexity in biology do not require a grand designer. Genetic changes in organisms and natural selection are all that’s necessary. Similarly, free-market economists like F.A. Hayek, building on insights of conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke, have shown how order and complexity in the economy and society do not require a grand government designer. With minimalist laws protecting life, liberty and property, individuals pursuing their own self-interest will also produce peace and unprecedented prosperity. By contrast, government direction produces conflict and hampers the creation of wealth.
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Mind of the Market, rightly tells free-market conservatives that they should appreciate how understanding evolution boosts their case for liberty: Darwin is truly a liberator! And Shermer tells those on the political left who usually embrace discoveries of science such as evolution that they need to appreciate the implications of evolution for their own pet theories about government-run economies.
Some individuals still reject the facts about evolution out of an unanalyzed fear that, if they could articulate it, would amount to “How can humans have a morality if we evolved from lower animals? Doesn’t this fact mean that anything goes?”
A fear, of course, can’t negate facts. But in any case, the fear is unfounded. Just as an explanation of our biological origins does not need to rely on myths and alleged divine revelations, neither does morality. Indeed, the origins of morality are found in our nature as rational creatures with free choice who must understand the world around us and within us and develop principles to guide our conduct—morality—in order to survive and flourish.
Darwin was one of the most revolutionary and right thinkers in human history, up there with Newton and Einstein in terms of the implications of his discoveries. When we compare him to Lincoln by saying that he has liberated us from the slavery of ignorance and freed us to see the truth, we speak by analogy but no less truthfully. So let us celebrate the birth two hundred years ago of these two liberators who did so much for humanity.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.