11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Defending Darwin's Legacy

Let us set the record straight once and for all.  Darwin’s famous tome is not properly entitled, The Origin of Species

The original and correct title of Darwin’s book is, On the Origin of Species. In fact the complete title is, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Only in the sixth edition published in 1872 was the title shortened to exclude the “on” as a capitulation to reality since so many people by that point had already been misquoting the title.  So as we approach the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication, let us vow to reinsert the long missing “on” and recapture Darwin’s original intent.

If you believe this to be making much about nothing, consider the results if we randomly excised a word from the title of other great works:

Cat on a Hot Tin (Tennessee Williams, Roof)

The Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, Hitch)

A Tale of Two (Charles Dickens, Cities)

Moby (Herman Melville, Dick

A to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, Farewell)

The Da Vinci (Dan Brown, Code)

The Bell (Sylvia Plath, Ringer)

In the Rye (J.D. Salinger, Catcher)

Tortilla (John Steinbeck, Flat)

And Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime)

Hocus (Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Pocus)

Expectations (Charles Dickens, Great)


We the readers do not have the luxury of simply renaming an author’s work.  Darwin called his book On the Origin of Speciesand that is exactly how were should reference his publication.

What Darwin wrote under that original title remains relevant today; a testament to the power of his ideas.  Darwin himself defined evolution as “descent with modification, caused by the accumulation of innumerable slight variations, each good to the possessor.”  What is truly amazing about this statement is that Chuck D not only discovered evolution, but anticipated the mechanism by which evolution would work.  And he did so long before universities thought about teaching genetics.

Yet because of religion’s iron grip on society, no theory in all of science remains more poorly understood by more people in spite of evolution’s incredible success.  Perhaps because Einstein had a better publicist, if not a better barber, we always refer to his Theory of Relativity with a hint of reverence.  But Creationists disparage Darwin’s discovery as “only” a theory in an attempt to deny evolution the same status that Relativity enjoys in the pantheon of science.  That false disparity implies the mistaken idea in the general population that theory means uncertainty.  It does not.  Theory means a body of facts or accepted data set offered to explain diverse phenomena organized under a unifying and usually simplifying concept or principle.  That is exactly what the theory of evolution does: natural selection is a simple and comprehensive explanation for how life can express its incredible diversity and complexity as a matter of chemistry and physics.

We would properly honor this anniversary by leaving behind forever the “debate” about evolution’s validity.  Nothing in all of science is more certain than evolution.  We can witness evolution in a Petri dish; we have witnessed speciation.  Bacterial resistance is evolution in action.  Darwin’s theory is as certain as the orbit of the earth around the sun.  If evolution were in doubt so too would be the idea that DNA represents our genetic code or that atoms are a basic building block of nature.  Evolution has been proven across multiple disciplines of paleontology, embryology, molecular biology, genetics, and cell physiology.

Just as the majority of people no longer accept the idea of a flat earth, the time has come to credit Darwin’s discovery by finally rejecting the notion of faith as equivalent to data.  An appeal to god is not a scientific method that can substitute for objective truth and direct observation.    Creationists make a critical mistake in confusing scientific inquiry with censorship.  It is because of science and overwhelming data that we do not teach the “Stork Theory of Reproduction” in school, not because we are censoring the Bring Back the Stork Society.

Debating the validity of evolution is more embarrassing than if we were still arguing about the cause of malaria, with some insisting that “night fever” is caused by bad air, completely ignoring our knowledge of mosquitoes.  Would we be “censoring” people because we do not give “equal time” in our universities to those who still believe that bad air causes the disease?

So I offer a counter proposal to the rather absurd effort recently undertaken by actor Kirk Cameron to distribute to the “top 50 universities” 50,000 copies of Darwin’s book annotated with a 50 page introduction of fantasy and falsehoods that seek to dispute the indisputable. The self-proclaimed “anti-atheist” campaign is being promoted on a video widely viewed on YouTube.

That the YouTube video and the annotation itself are rife with inaccuracies and false statements is indisputable.  The promotion claims that Einstein believed in god.  He did not, and certainly not in one that created the universe.  Here is Einstein’s opinion of god in his own words written in a letter dated January 3, 1954:  “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”  The video falsely claims that kids can “no longer” pray in school and that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed in public.  Both are factually incorrect; of course a student can open his personal bible in school, and displays of the Commandments are prohibited only on government property.  This does not represent “no longer” but the conditions on which the country was founded.

The effort to discredit evolution must inevitably rely upon verifiably false statements.  But pointing out the inaccuracies is decried as censorship.  Hence Cameron’s latest play is based on the belief, which Cameron explicitly states, that Creationists are being prevented from telling their story.  Really? Cameron oddly claims he is being silenced, without defining by whom, but then cites Berkeley’s policy of allowing anybody to distribute non-commercial material in open spaces on campus.  Like that statement of self-contradiction, the entire of idea of censorship turns reality on its head.   Universities are one of only a few places in society where rational thought is being taught; whereas everywhere else, every Sunday, in every church, on just about every street corner in the United States, those who oppose evolution are free to promote their ideas.  The notion of censorship is so absurd in a country dominated by Christianity in virtually every aspect of life as to be offensive.  In a society with churches popping up like mushrooms, in which 75% of Americans claim to be Christian, any accusation about brainwashing would have to be laid at the feet of ministers, rabbis, priests and mullahs, not a few university professors.

So let’s let a thousand flowers bloom!  I say let Cameron and his ilk distribute hundreds of thousands of their silly annotations.   But if they are free to distribute to universities, then rationalists deserve the same freedom.  That means we should distribute copies of Darwin’s book, uncensored, to every church in the country.  We should stand next to the minister or priest as parishioners are filing out of the church and hand out Darwin’s tome to each as they pass by.  In fact, we should get equal time at the pulpit!  For every ten minutes of sermon, I want ten minutes to promote rationalism.  If Creationists believe they deserve equal time in the classroom, then certainly rationalists deserve equal time under the nave!

Let’s fight brimstone with brimstone.   There would be no better way to celebrate this 150th anniversary.  Knowledge is the only effective means of fighting ignorance.