Destroying the presence of God in nature

April 12, 2007

Darwin's Origin of Species: A Biography

By Janet Browne

Allen & Unwin, 2006

174 pages, $22.95

It is a mark of the high regard in which Charles Darwin was held by Marx and Engels that in his speech at Marx's funeral in 1883 Engels described Marx's discovery of the laws of human history as comparable to Darwin's discovery of the law of development of organic nature. Indeed, Marx himself sent Darwin an inscribed copy of the third edition of Das Kapital.

In this readable volume Janet Browne tells the story of the book (On the Origins of Species)in which Darwin first set out his law of development of organic nature, according to which species in nature are not created by the hand of God, but instead evolve through a sometimes torturous process of chance variation and natural selection.

Although in his youth Darwin intended a career as a country parson and did not wish to be perceived as an atheist, the publication of his magnum opus in 1859 shook organised religion to the core. After 1859, the origin of species could no longer be considered a divine mystery, and the idea that nature exemplifies "God's harmony" was exposed once and for all as a myth.

It is a lesson that the reactionary religious right has continually attempted to smother: for a time in the early 20th century it was illegal to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in schools in Tennessee, and with Christian crypto-fascism again resurgent in the contemporary USA, Browne's book serves as a reminder of the great scientific advance that the proponents of "intelligent design" would have us trash.

My favourite quote on Darwin comes from a review of On the Origin of Species published by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1860: "What is the history of every science but the elimination of the notion of mystery or creative interferences? ... Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes besides that of Hercules, and history records that whenever science and dogmatism have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed, if not annihilated; scotched, if not slain".

Readers will leave Browne's book with a desire to read Darwin's scientific masterpiece for themselves. With right-wing Christian bigots ensconced in the White House, Downing Street and Canberra, that's no bad thing.

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