The current issue of e-Skeptic features three book reviews I recently wrote, discussing books related to the evolution of evolution. The three books were Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott; Darwin the Writer, by George Levine; and American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science, by Jeffrey Moran. I liked all three! Properly juxtaposed, they tell a complete story, from the early history of evolutionary thought, often carried out in secret for fear of retaliation from religious authorities, as documented by Stott’s book, through Darwin’s work as described so lyrically by Levine, and then emerging on the other side with the forces of religion wondering what hit them, as outlined in Moran’s book. Here’s my dramatic conclusion:
In seeking to explain the causes of some momentous historical transition, you will never go wrong attributing it to the subtle and complex influence of many social and cultural factors. On the other hand, Whig approaches to history, in which we see the past as an inexorable march of progress and enlightenment leading to a glorious present, are nearly always oversimplifications.
These are important lessons, but we should not let them blind us to instances where history really does present us with clear, unambiguous themes. How can you not understand the evolution of evolution except as a steady march of progress, from tentative, fearful beginnings, through the watershed of Darwin’s work, to the idea’s modern triumph? Why should I not take some pride in the gradual weakening of dogmatic, religious ways of understanding nature in favor of the infinitely more useful scientific approach?
In the end, the story as it reveals itself in the work of Stott, Levine and Moran seems to bear out the wise words of Isaac Asimov, “[A worldview] that is patently in error cannot change the universe to conform to itself. However popular it may be and however irritatingly it may survive refutation, its falseness condemns it—in the end—to nothingness.” It has taken many centuries, and creationism remains dangerous even in its death throes, but its falseness has, indeed, consigned it to nothingness. That is quite properly viewed as the happy ending to a long story, complete with heroes and villains. Perhaps that view is Whiggish and simplistic, but it is no less true for that.