Saturday, November 24, 2012

On this day in 1859, a controversy was born...

If you read here often, you might recall that just after the election I wrote about a Congressional race in Georgia where the Republican candidate was running unopposed but had riled up some voters because of his statements against evolution. In protest, over 4,000 voters wrote in Charles Darwin on the ballot to make the point that the candidate's statements were not universally approved in the district.

Well, today is the anniversary of the publication, in 1859, of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the book, that started the modern controversy over whether the Christian God created all species as is, or whether Darwin was correct and life has evolved over the millennia.

Not that Darwin was the first to propose that species change and become new species, of course. But his book took the question wide, as one might put it if it had been a movie. It was written not just for other scientists, but for the general public. And the general public bought it in droves. The first edition sold out immediately, and a second edition published on January 7, 1860, also sold out within the day. In total, six editions, each with revisions, were issued before Darwin's death in 1882.

Reaction to the first edition was immediate but, surprisingly considering the history of the controversy over Darwin's take on the idea, not completely negative. Even some clergy immediately seized on Darwin's concept of natural selection and declared it simply God's mechanism for the creation of species. Still, there was much negative reaction and the erroneous charge that Darwin had written that humans descended from monkeys started circulating almost immediately. This occurred even though Darwin did not address the origin or evolution of humans at all in the Origin, except in his conclusion, where he wrote that "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." He did not apply his ideas on natural selection, in writing at least, to humans until a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871.

The debate over Darwin's theory has raged, with greater or lesser heat, pretty much ever since, although the volume of those religious voices raised in opposition to evolution give a slightly inaccurate picture of religion's official stance on the subject. I wrote in my earlier post about a survey that showed most Christian denominations having no real argument with Darwin and evolution, and I'm reading an interesting book right now, Joel W. Martin's The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution Is Not a Threat (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010; 170 pages), which expands on that conclusion. Martin is a scientist by training. He is also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, where he teaches Sunday school and confirmation classes.

Martin's book takes time to show which Christian denominations in the United States officially accept evolution and which denominations reject it or have not made official statements regarding Darwin's theory. His conclusion is that denominations claiming 45.85 million members in the US have come out as opposing evolutionary theory, while denominations claiming 94.05 million members in the US have issued statements saying that there is no conflict between Christianity and evolution, and denominations claiming 8.5 million members have not come out clearly one way or the other (Martin, p. 10). Martin is careful to say that his numbers are not complete for various reasons, including but not limited to the fact that it is sometimes very difficult to determine memberships in denominations and that some denominations are so small that they do not make it onto lists of US Christian denominations (Martin, p. 11). He also points out that not all members of denominations agree with every official position of their denomination (Martin, p. 12). However, the thoroughness of Martin's research lends credence to the numbers he has arrived at on this topic.

So, the controversy remains, even as scientists find more and more evidence confirming that evolution does occur. Which brings me to another of the day's anniversaries - the discovery of "Lucy", a 40-percent-complete skeleton of an species called Australopithecus afarensis, by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in Hadar, Ethiopia, on November 24, 1974. Famously named for the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", the find led to the naming of her species, although some partial specimens of her species had been discovered earlier.

Lucy lived around 3.2 million years ago, while her species has been determined to have existed from around 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago in East Africa, primarily in Ethiopia but also in Kenya. There is still discussion over whether Au. afarensis is a direct ancestor of modern humans or a close relative of our species, a cousin of sorts, but whichever position on the evolutionary tree Lucy and her species occupy, they give further fossil confirmation that our species did evolve.


Lisa said...

Nice essay! I've been meaning to read Darwin. Instead of, you know, reading about Darwin.

littlemissattitude said...

Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm glad you liked it.

littlemissattitude said...

I've been thinking about it, and I believe you're correct about reading Darwin. I've read parts of his work, but I've never read either "On The Origin of Speces" or "The Descent of Man" straight through.

It even occurs to me that his work is a lot like the Bible in that way. I've read large parts of that, too, but never read the whole thing through.

I should probably do that, in both cases.