07/12/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Darwin's Greatest Gift

"I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable." -- Charles Darwin in a letter to Robert Hooker, curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

I recently received from the Discovery Institute the pre-print of a book that purports to make yet another case for "intelligent design" (ID), the modern guise of creationism. Perhaps my criticisms in The Huffington Post regarding scientific materialism (Science's Sacred Cows: Part 8 and Part 9) led the author to assume I'm sympathetic to ID. Not so, but to appreciate why, you need to know a bit about creationism's nemesis: Charles Darwin.


For most of my life I remained woefully ignorant of Darwin. That changed in 2003 when I traveled to London with a group of academicians to study "British Science" in situ. Our guide -- a chemistry prof contemplating retirement -- wanted to hook a replacement to carry on his successful study-abroad course. It worked; he hooked two, myself included.

The group's first stop: the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar square. There, scattered among centuries of British monarchs, we encountered towering figures of the scientific era. One likeness captured my attention like no other. One glimpses Darwin's soul in John Collier's portrait of 1881, painted just two years before Darwin's death. NPG 1024 is nearly life sized. The viewer stares directly into Darwin's downcast eyes, in whose depths reside all manner of qualities and emotions: intelligence, gentleness, sadness, wisdom, and world-weariness. In those eyes one feels Darwin's lingering grief in the loss of three children. In those eyes, one appreciates the gentleness that rendered Darwin incapable of defending himself, and one encounters a man weary of life's vicissitudes. With his dark traveling cape and flowing beard, Darwin seems more a biblical prophet than an iconoclastic scientist. How strange, I thought, that he would appear a religious figure, given the widespread revulsion to Darwin's "blasphemous" theory within large swaths of the religious world.

That day I made a commitment to know the man. I have since visited his home -- Down House -- where I have felt the aura that lingers in his nearly intact study and stood at the billiard table where Parslow, the butler, diverted Darwin from incessant cogitation. There I've imagined what Charles' wife Emma might have played on the living-room piano as the family gathered for nightly reading, and I've walked Darwin's beloved Sand Walk, which he trod thrice daily, rain or shine. I have read his books, studied his theory, and held in my bare hands fossils he collected on the voyage of the H.M.S Beagle. I've grieved the loss of 10-year old Annie -- the light of his life -- to tuberculosis, and I have paused reverently by his gravesite in Westminster Abbey, where Darwin lies near his friend, the great geologist Charles Lyell, both not far from the resting place of Sir Isaac Newton.

Of Darwin, Alfred North Whitehead remarked snidely, "[He] is truly great, but he is the dullest great man I can think of." I don't share Whitehead's opinion, but I think I know where he was coming from. Unlike most who occupy the Pantheon of British Science -- Newton, Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, and Hawking, to name a few -- Darwin was relatively ordinary. He was not brilliant. The theory of evolution emerged not by blinding flashes of insight but by long, hard slogs through swamps of tedious and sometimes contradictory facts. Unrelenting mental effort took its toll. In later years Darwin lost the appreciation for poetry, music, and literature that delighted him as a young man. "My mind seems to have become a machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts," he lamented in his autobiography.

Darwin, however, possessed one quality that set him apart from the rest of his race: unsurpassed powers of observation. Keenly aware of all about him, Darwin chronicled in detail the ordinary and the sublime, often waxing poetic: geological strata, creatures of the rainforest, the Indians of Tierra del Fuego, the wretched mistreatment of slaves in South America, and the tortoises, lizards, and finches of the Galapagos Islands. Nothing escaped his attention, not even a mortal battle between a hapless spider and a determined wasp that "commenced as regular a hunt as ever hound did after fox." His observations of Annie -- tenderly committed to a four-page letter following her death -- still evoke tears.

In his autobiography, Darwin gratefully acknowledged that "not having to earn his bread" had afforded him the luxury of unencumbered pursuit of science. Even his ill health held a silver lining by "saving him from the distractions of society and amusement." Surprised by his worldwide influence, Darwin humbly credited success to four qualities: a love of science, "unbounded patience," "industry in observing," and common sense. As always, his observations, even of himself, were dead on, if incomplete.

To those four must surely be added a fifth: uncommon integrity, his greatest legacy. Few appreciate that before Darwinism rocked Victorian England, it first shook Darwin to the core. He embarked on the Beagle a young-earth creationist and returned five years later with a host of disquieting notions: the antiquity of the earth, the malleability of species, and the continuity of creation.

For the entirety of his post-voyage life, Darwin suffered "Maer's disease," a mysterious malady at least partly psychosomatic. His longsuffering is testament both to his hypochondria and his courage. "The most transparent man I ever met," Emma described her sensitive husband. He dreaded the controversy his theory would unleash, and suffered accordingly. The quotation with which this post begins hints at how deeply Darwin's own ideas ruffled him. Few persons are willing to endure what Darwin endured for the sake of an unpopular idea whose time has come.

For 20 years Darwin sat on the theory of evolution, procrastinating to postpone the controversy, to spare his conventionally religious wife from being swept up in its wake, and to amass mountains of corroborating evidence. When in 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace threatened to scoop him, Darwin's first inclination was to yield to Wallace credit for the theory. Fortunately, credit was shared thanks to a Solomonic arrangement worked out by Lyell and Hooker, Darwin's closest confidants. Wallace and Darwin remained friends for life -- and beyond. Wallace served as pallbearer at Darwin's funeral.

Darwin devoted Chapters VI and VII of Origin of Species (1859) to "difficulties" with and "objections" to the theory of evolution, respectively. Harvard's eminent biologist Asa Gray marveled at Darwin's candor and lightly chastised him for its excess, for he had handed would-be assassins their weapons upon a silver platter. To this day, creationist's objections to evolution are drawn primarily from Darwin himself, despite the 150 intervening years that have resolved nearly all doubts in Darwin's favor.

In 2005, in the landmark ruling Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the U.S. Third District Court castigated proponents of ID for violating separation of church and state. The new creationists had commandeered a Pennsylvania school board to impose ID as an alternative to evolution in science classes, and in making their case to the court, had lied about certain particulars. In marked contrast, when time and again political interests sought Darwin's imprimatur to exploit the tenets of evolution for one cause or another, he always politely refused. He had no desire to beat anyone's political drum.

ID troubles me because it subverts the scientific process. From an assumed conclusion (there is a designer), facts are cherry-picked and bent to support the conclusion. Darwin, on the other hand, followed the facts wherever they led, even when they undermined his own equanimity.

Without integrity there is no science. Those who would challenge Darwin should learn to mimic him.

(This essay is adapted from Chapters 9 and 10 of Reason and Wonder.)