A valentine for Mr. Darwin

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Yesterday was Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (or would have been had we evolved for greater longevity). And tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Hence this token of affection.

Why do we love him? Partly because he taught a new and natural basis for human self-love and self-esteem, a great gift to a species prone to both self-disparagement (we are all sinners) and raging narcissism (we are images of God). Darwin's contribution wasn't the notion of evolution, which had been advocated by others. It was his theory of natural selection. This accounted for our species by a natural process tracing back not just to monkeys but, implicitly, to inanimate matter -- cosmic dust, rocks, water etc. -- though he graciously left it to future explorers to fill in the steps, including the origins of life. It meant humans didn't have to be plunked down from beyond, into a dullish world. We are an intricately connected piece emerging from it, a realization of part of its potential.

This doesn't so much demote humankind as it promotes the world. It doesn't need to be infused with anything from beyond itself, nor shaped by a Designer. It's true this deprived the Creator God of his role and dignity, but it conferred on the natural world a dignity at least equivalent to that loss. Not just on life or on conscious beings, but on the primal stuff out of which, as Darwin plausibly indicated, all the rest could unfold. Mere matter turned out to be not so mere and far more mysterious than previously thought. This is not irreligious. It is less atheism than it is pantheism, deism or, perhaps, paganism.

I'd say that, for those of us who live on the Canadian Shield or just summer there, the fact that we emerged from water, rocks and air comes as no great surprise. We always sensed that there was something ineffable in that combination.

We also love Darwin for the modesty of his claims. He was no social Darwinist. He never claimed progress was inevitable or those who survived and succeeded were inherently superior. Survival of the fittest wasn't even his phrase; it was Herbert Spencer's. Darwin had an impulse for social justice, but he didn't argue for it biologically. Survival, not progress or merit, was his sole scientific criterion, and merely of the fitter. That means the best available option was naturally selected. The available options themselves emerge from random mutations, so no one should get too juiced over the results.

It often amounts to simply the least worst option, nothing grander. Darwin does not suggest that we have achieved the best possible survival arrangement, or that humans are the pinnacle, the most advanced, the most complex etc. So he has less to justify and explain than the Intelligent Design people, who have some pretty iffy outcomes to defend, as chosen by the Intelligent One in charge. That modesty and honesty lead, you might say, to at least the possibility of a healthy narcissism on our part.

Then there is the concept of romantic love, along with the evolution thereof. Some decades back, it was common in university courses to teach that it was invented or discovered by minstrels in medieval Europe. Various literary texts were cited as proof. Others were said to acquire it from those sources. This seemed inherently idiotic to anyone who had an acquaintance with human beings anywhere, in any era. Or with the animal kingdom, for that matter.

I don't think it's nearly as current now. Scholars such as British anthropologist Jack Goody have debunked it, along with equally fatuous notions about democracy, capitalism or individualism being unique creations of "the West," rather than broadly human tendencies. I don't want to make immodest claims, but it seems to me that those were ideas not fit to survive and that their decline testifies to not the inevitability, but the possibility of progress.

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