Darwin was wrong!

This is an archival repost originally written on the old blog in 2008.

Hah! Made you look! No, but seriously…

The schizophrenic argument of the creationists goes something like this (my paraphrasing):

  • How can we believe anything these scientists say when they keep changing what they say to accommodate the new things that they discover?
  • How can we believe anything these scientists say when they just worship Darwin and talk about Victorian ideas. Haven’t we discovered anything new since then?

Well, it’s true that many of Darwin’s ideas are still relevant to science today. Many people still use the modifier “Darwinian” when talking about “selection”: Darwin’s description of natural selection has stood the test of time with only modest new discoveries. And it’s also true that biology has grown to incorporate new facts — remember that Darwin was never acquainted with the field of genetics, a 20th century development. Indeed, genetics — the mechanisms of inheritance — was where Darwin got it all horribly wrong.

Darwin was sympathetic to the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics — that the skills we work hard for and the afflictions we curse ourselves with, the blacksmith’s biceps and the scholar’s spectacles, are routinely inherited. The popular hypothesis at the time was that “hereditary particles” flow through the body from every limb and organ and into the sperm and egg (mostly the sperm, remember that this was the 19th century, when women’s role in forming children was seen as something equivalent to a flowerpot’s role in germination). The hereditary particles flowing from bulging biceps or myopic maculae would surely reflect their sources? Only after Darwin had departed did we discover that the hereditary particles spend all of their days closely guarded in the ovaries and testes, having only a passing acquaintance with the activities of the biceps.

Darwin got something wrong, and that’s OK. Darwin did not set himself up as infallible, issue decrees, or talk of absolute certainty. He is rightly remembered for the important discovery that he made, and for those ideas of his which have stood the test of time, but he is not the messiah. Sometimes I think creationists have a hard time comprehending these things. Stuck in a world where there is nothing new to learn and everything is revealed by authority, they assume that their opposition are in the same situation, only with a different holy book. In a world where divine revelation is the purest source of knowledge, they are bewildered by a system in which knowledge grows and blurry pictures slowly sharpen. In a world where everything they know flows through pope or pastor, they assume that Darwin must be our leader, and we must be his flock. Knowing that their belief system depends upon defending the infallibility of their book, they seem to think that demonstrating Darwin’s fallibility is sufficient to undermine evolution.

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