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article imageThe Genius of Charles Darwin - God Strikes Back

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Sep 14, 2008 in Science
Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution is one of the foundations of modern science. Evolution Theory is a fact, but religion doesn't gladly accept defeat. It fights back. This documentary by Richard Dawkins shows us that it often is a dirty fight.
Charles Darwin turned our world upside down. His Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is one of the most profound and far-reaching ideas in human history. It's also, alas, one of the most controversial. Science now has the evidence that proves evolution is true. Yet today, incredibly, the opposition to Darwin is more fiercely vocal than ever, denying plain facts in more and more elaborate ways.
In this program the increasingly aggressive backlash, the battles that I think really matter, and how the first man to understand evolution himself wrestled with religious faith. For Darwin, the problem was close to home. His beloved wife was a devout Christian. Today, we have public battles as we confront the ranks of religious fundamentalists, eager to attack Darwin's great legacy, which they just don't understand.
So begins the third and last episode of this documentary series about Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution by Richard Dawkins, one of the greatest teachers of our generation.
By means of introduction, Richard Dawkins explains that when he was a young boy, he looked to God to explain life. Then, his father introduced him to the theory of evolution and he (Richard) had problems accepting it. He didn't think that something so simple could explain so much, but when looked closer and learned more, the penny dropped. As a result, he became the atheist he is today.
Charles Darwin changed his mind as well. During his voyage on the Beagle, he still thought that God created the world and everything in it. Then, he was confronted by more and more evidence that pointed towards the evolution of life: fossil ancestors, patterns of anatomical resemblance between different species, resemblance between embryos of different species, the development of embryos, the power of domestic breeding (artificial selection). Darwin thought that there was an entirely natural explanation.
All animals vary and in the competition of nature, some variations are more successful and more likely to reproduce than others, passing their variation on.
Darwin realized that the religious story of creation was contradicting the evidence of the natural world. God has no place in evolution. This was a problem for Darwin, because his wife Emma was religious. Darwin never criticized religion directly in public, possibly because he didn't want to hurt his wife's feelings. Instead, he let science speak for him and he predicted that science would bring about a gradual illumination of minds.
Sadly, today it seems harder and harder for people to see the light. They are renouncing reason and are trying to go back to a world from before Darwin.
Professor Dawkins takes us to John Mackay, an Australian creationist who believes that we don't die because we get old, but because we are sinners. According to him, there is no record of rain until Noah's time. He attacks evolution theory on the very crudest level.
Mackay: I didn't grow up brainwashed with this. It's the result of finishing my university course, listening to students say "If evolution is true, why can't we see it happening?" Third year genetics question to the professor.
Dawkins: You take that question seriously, do you?
Mackay: Oh yah! Yah. And the professor, his answer, I took even more seriously when he said "Well, it happens so slowly you wouldn't expect to see it happening" And all of a sudden I thought, hang on...
Dawkins: That's true.
Mackay: Good, so in other words, what you don't see happening is not science. It's unobservable and you are the first person [unintelligible] PBS
Dawkins: You are using the word see as seeing within one lifetime. If a phenomenon takes millions of years, of course you're not going to see it.
Mackay: Which means you have a faith position, and you need to admit it, because your weren't there
Dawkins: It means you have to look at other evidence than the evidence of one man's eyes, it means you have to look...
Mackay: Oh, I'm sorry, Darwin was only 1859, that's only 150 years ago almost right, and you haven't seen it and I haven't seen it, so please stop calling it science and call what you're teaching philosophy or atheism if you're gonna really be honest and my time is up now.
Dawkins: That's ridiculous, but anyway, thank you very much.
The refusal to believe in anything you can't see yourself is absurd. None of us has ever seen Napoleon with our own eyes, but that doesn't mean he didn't exist. John Mackay can't see a cell, an atom, or a weather system on the other side of the planet, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Darwin didn't only trust his own eyes, he also checked his theory against evidence gathered by naturalists from all over the world.
Opposition against evolution has grown over the past decades, especially in the US. This movement started with the launch of Sputnik. In response, the American government declared science the number one priority and poured money in science education. For the first time, everyone in the US was learning about evolution. But, religious fundamentalists fought back.
They invented creation science, a bizarre concoction of scientific sounding words mixed with religion. Professor Dawkins worries that this is brainwashing, not science, and he tries to take a stand.
Prof. Dawkins:My book, the God Delusion has put me firmly in the front line in the battle between religion and reason. The most powerful nation on earth is polarized. At this conference of atheists, I'm treated almost like a rock star, but there are sections of American society that would happily lynch me.
As an illustration, we hear some of the mail the religious lot is sending professor Dawkins:
I hope you die slowly and you bleeping burn in hell, you damned blasphemy. And you should realize that your entire life has been a delusion and that right now, your destiny is all bleeped up you bleeping atheist.
Go bleep yourself. You, sir, are an absolute ass. Your famed intelligence is nothing more than the fart of God. You suck, go burn in hell. Satan will enjoy torturing you. (Christian living for God).
there is a god her created all of us the only one who is blinded are the unsaved and stuburn and everything darwin said is wrong and evolution has never been proven and nothing is evolving now the bible is the best book nothing even comes close to its accuracy and if you think god's judgement is bad the devil has worse in store for all unbelievers
Haha you bleeping dumbass I hope you get hit by a church van tonight and you die slowly.
Richard says it doesn't scare him but that he rather pities those people because they sound so defensive and rather pathetic.
As an example of a different, more slick and polished opposition, Richard Dawkins takes us to Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. She represents half a million evangelical women concerned with a variety of issues going from lesbians on TV to Darwin.
Wright: Why is it is important to you that people not believe in a creator?
Dawkins: That's not the point. I mean, the point is that as a scientist, I am concerned that children in American schools and in schools elsewhere should be exposed to the evidence and allowed to make up their minds about the evidence.
Wright: And we completely agree. In fact, that's why the challenge in America whenever this debate comes up is "teach the controversy," "teach the evidence" because as it is now, in many cases, school children are only being taught about evolution, they're not being taught about the frauds in evolution and the lack of evidence in evolution, so it's actually us who are arguing for teaching all the evidence, not just the ones that are favourable to evolutionists.
Dawkins: Well, you could say "which controversy?"
[...]
Wright: And actually, your your the way you framed this in your very close-mindedness really is a very good example of the kind of censorship we receive in the scientific community that won't even allow discussion about the controversy. If evolution had occurred, then surely, whether its going from birds to mammals, or or even beyond that, surely, there'd be at least one evidence.
Dawkins: There are massive amounts of evidence. I'm sorry, but you people keep repeating that like a kind of mantra because you just listen to each other. I mean, if only you would just open your eyes and look at the evidence.
Wright: Show it to me, show me show me the bones, show me the carcass, show me the evidence of the in-between stage of one species to another.[giggles]
Dawkins: Go and look at some modern paleontology labs, go and talk to some modern paleontologists, just just look at that evidence, it's beautiful. The evidence for the transition between the reptilian jaw and the mammalian jaw. The reptilian jaw has several bones, the mammalian lower jaw has only one bone and the other bones that were in the reptile have now moved into the inner ear, it's a beautiful transition, there are so many beautiful stories, I mean you'd be fascinated.
Richard Dawkins: So, is there evidence for evolution or isn't there? Let me show you.The professor takes us into a fossil room. There are now millions of fossils in museums all over the world. He explains that these fossils have all been documented and dated and the relationships between most of them have been worked out. We see a number of "missing links" of our human ancestry. He shows us a laboratory where DNA is tested. The DNA matches the fossils.
Many religious people simply don't know about this evidence. Some do, and their strategy is even more bizarre. We follow Richard to meet Nick Cowan, a secondary school science teacher who teaches his students that the earth is less than ten thousand years old:I would rather believe God, who was there, who's told us, than scientists who are fallible, who don't know the past, who weren't there.Richard Dawkins explains that this is an old argument: God is infallible, therefore the Bible is right. It's like claiming that Darwin was infallible and that, therefore, what he said is always right. But, science works through reason and evidence, not through sacred texts.
Creationists claim that our world is a perfect creation, but in reality, it is the result of evolutionary arms race. Animals have extraordinary adaptations to their environment, but they are not perfect. We pay a visit to Randolph Nesse, a psychologist. He explains that the old creationist favourite, the human eye, is nowhere near as perfect as creationists claim. It is, in fact, a rather poorly constructed, flawed instrument. Better still, the flaws of this botched job are so blatant, that the eye is in and of itself evidence for evolution, not design. He strengthens his case by means of a simple test.
Dawkins: Evolution is a fact. It's documented to the same degree Napoleon is by history. Some things are just true. They are not a matter of choice or of opinion, but you'd never guess that in the place where this matters more than anywhere: in our schools, where the teaching of evolution has become a hugely sensitive issue for science teachers.
Charles Darwin was the first person who realized that life on earth had evolved without the help of any God. He also wrestled with what this means for religion. Darwin was worried about how religion was spread by indoctrinating young children, not by reason and evidence. He wrote "that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake." (page 93 of Darwin's autobiography).
We now pay a visit to the science teachers of Park High School in North London, the same school the children in episode one came from. The scene is almost too painful to watch. We see science teachers who are so afraid of teaching scientific reality that they can't even think straight anymore. It is truly pitiful.
After the visit, Richard explains what relativism is: the rather quaint notion that all opinions have equal value, even if they contradict each other. Professor Dawkins:There really is something special about scientific evidence. Science works. Planes fly. Magic carpets and broomsticks don't. Gravity is not a version of the truth, it is the truth. Anybody who doubts it, is invited to jump out of a tenth floor window.Evolution is also reality. You don't decide to believe it or not. The evidence supports it. Evolution is the plain truth.
Professor Dawkins blames the Church of England in Darwin's time for this confusion. It made a relativist fudge of it all by deciding that science could explain how nature works and that God could take the credit for starting science in the first place.
We pay a visit to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He accepts evolution but then spouts some poetry in order to hide that he doesn't quite know what his position really is. He is at least honest enough to admit the utter weakness of his arguments.
On the one hand, Richard has a lot of sympathy for the decent middle of the road Christian, on the other hand, he is aware of the danger they represent, for they are the ones who open the door for rabid creationists to sneak through by making it respectable to believe on the basis of faith instead of evidence.
Many people understand evolution, but wish they didn't. Darwinism can be bleak. Darwin wrestled with it too, and one piece of evidence shook him to the core: parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in the larvae of other insects. They sting the larvae in each part of their nervous systems in order to paralyze them but not kill them so that the meat can stay fresh. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the poor critter from the inside out, while it is unable to do anything about it.
Do we hide from this horrific truth by ducking under a security blanket of faith in God? Darwin wondered what kind of God would create an animal that can only exist in this horrible way?
Dawkins:Isn't it better to embrace reality, bleak as it sometimes may be, than to avoid it, and live a lie?Prof. Dawkins explains that great happiness and bliss can be found in the knowledge of how everything is put together. We can be proud of the fact that we are descendants of an unbroken line of winners. Every single living entity we descend from lived long enough to reproduce, i.e. none died young.
Darwin's last book was about earth worms. He was fascinated by the way they lived in a secret, unseen world while slowly, over long periods of time, churning the entire surface of the earth.
We pay a visit to Dan Dennett, a philosopher Richard Dawkins has known for 25 years. He recently had a brush with death. Some of his friends told him they had prayed for him. "Thank you," he replied, "and did you also sacrifice a goat?"
Dan explains that Darwinism has lost us our immortal souls, but that it has given us something really fascinating instead: a material mortal soul, constructed out of neurons, mindless little robots that only do their jobs, but that, put together in certain structures, create our souls.
Darwin died in 1882. In his last days, he told his wife Emma "I'm not in the least afraid to die." Although he had asked to be buried in Down, next to his two dead children, the establishment insisted that he would be buried in Westminster Abbey. A host of scientists and celebrities attended. The church tried to absorb the man who had brought them down. But, the archbishop of Canterbury happened to be indisposed and the god-fearing prime minister Wiliam Gladstone had "prior engagements".
This was the end of the man who had proved the Biblical creation story shallow and wanting.
Richard concludes: I revere Charles Darwin. He made sense of life. The world is amazing, even more amazing than Darwin knew. The more we discover, the more petty our little private beliefs seem. Does Darwinism leave a gaping hole where religion once was? No, rather it opens our minds to a world of majesty, the real magic all around us, not based on uncertain faith, but sound science.
In a handful of soil, there are about 25 billion bacteria. That's four times the entire human population of the planet. We humans, and the animals we can actually see, are a tiny fraction of life on earth. In the perspective of the universe, the vastness of the universe and geological time, we are insignificant. Some people find that thought disturbing, even frightening. Like Darwin, I find the reality thrilling.
This has been a series of three rather long articles. However, they don't even begin to do justice to the programs they describe. I urge everyone to watch these documentaries for themselves. They are among the best ever produced for television, and they are about one of the most important subjects we can think of: life itself.
Please, discover for yourself the true beauty, wonder and vastness of our universe. It is so much more interesting, so much more uplifting than the petty, self-contradictory and dark worlds of our religious books. These programs are about reality, the ultimate truth.
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