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The Importance of Darwinism: An Open Letter to Glenn Beck

2011 February 16

Charles Darwin, shortly after his tenure on the HMS Beagle

Dear Mr. Beck,

As you might not have known, this past weekend was the two hundred and second anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the scientific revolutionary who provided the world with the theory of evolution by natural selection and consequently the vocabulary to describe the legacy of life on earth.  The importance of Darwin and his work cannot be overstated.  Rarely can the difference between one epoch of human life and another be so clearly marked as the division made upon the publication of On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859.

I have addressed this letter to you for a number of reasons.  The first is that whenever you have spoken about evolution on your television and radio programs you have demonstrated not an informed contrary opinion but rather a simple ignorance on the subject.  This can certainly be excused and I could not claim to know enough about your history to demand that your knowledge be different.  However, it should delight you to know that your ignorance is easily remedied.  I would hope that this pursuit appeals to you, as you are a celebrated author and the host of popular radio and television programs, all of which have attracted a large and dedicated constituency.  In each venue you claim your commitment to truth, inquiry, and thorough research, though your investigation into this particular topic is demonstrably lacking.  I beseech you as a man of careful consideration to remedy the injustice you have imposed upon yourself and your followers by remaining uneducated on such a vastly important subject as Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

You have made two claims about evolution (to my knowledge) that are troublesome.  The first was made on August 19 of last year (though you might have made it prior, and you’ve surely repeated it since), when, on your television program, you referred to Charles Darwin as “the father of modern-day racism.”  The second was made on October 20 of last year on your radio program, when you called evolution “ridiculous,” citing the fact that you “haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet.”  Both of these statements are wildly ridiculous, as you will hopefully see.  I will address them in reverse order.

Half-Monkeys, Half-Humans

Let this be resoundingly clear: no serious biologist has ever or would ever claim the historic, present, or hypothetical existence of a human/monkey hybrid at all, let alone as evidence for Darwinian evolution.  This is not because of personal prejudice against such a creature, or because it would confound some pet theory, but simply because the existence of such an anomaly would be utterly irrelevant to evolution as it is currently (and very thoroughly) understood.

To begin with, humans are apes (quite distinct from monkeys).  It is commonly misunderstood that humans, subsequently, are descended from chimpanzees.  This is not the case and indeed it never was in either theory or reality.  Rather, for as long as the history of human evolution has been known, science has had it that humans and chimpanzees share a very recent common ancestor.  The creature from which humans and modern chimpanzees (and many other now-extinct species such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis) evolved lived some six million years ago.  This ape surely looked much more like a modern chimpanzee than a human, but this shouldn’t confuse one to conflating them entirely.  Neither should anyone be led to think that if evolution were true chimpanzees should be evolving into humans, giving birth to human babies, or any other grotesque and laughable suggestion.  No, chimpanzees have been evolving just as long as humans have and are quite perfect at being chimpanzees.  When considering oneself any more objectively “advanced” than a modern chimpanzee, I suggest one retreat to an African forest and try to take up with a community.  I expect one might use the term “advanced” more cautiously thenceforth.

Indeed, human beings share a common ancestor with every living thing on earth.  This is precisely what it means to be alive at all.  All forms of life, including those that have long perished, are descended from one source which existed 3.5 billion years ago when the conditions on earth were vastly different than they are presently.  Contemporary consensus has it that this source was most likely a molecule of RNA which replicated itself and subsequently facilitated the development of cellular life.

It is quite true that humans share an ancestor with modern monkeys, but this archaic creature is distinct from all contemporary ones and existed many millions of years ago.  If a half-monkey, half-person did exist today, it would indicate nothing about evolution but would instead be the tragic consequence of some horrible genetic experiment.

It is helpful to keep in mind that the idea of separate species comes from human science.  When it is said that humans evolved from primitive apes the unfortunate idea is often held that at some point an individual of one species gave birth to the first individual of a new species.  This is an understandable confusion, but it arises only when one forgets that different species have been identified long after the animals existed for purposes of human categorization and mental shorthand.  In reality, the evolutionary process is incredibly gradual, occurring over long periods of geological time.  Throughout this process the transition between species would be undetectably slow, with each offspring dutifully resembling its parentage.

Darwin is the Father of Modern Racism

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection describes the inheritance of genes through sexual reproduction.  Science has developed a detailed understanding of genetic processes as they occur and the results thereof.  As I’m sure you know, the Human Genome Project successfully mapped the first complete human genome in 2003, allowing an unprecedented look at the fundamental structure of human life.

Reproduction and the inheritance of genetic traits have been well understood for some time, gaining significant traction at the turn of the 20th century with the recognition of the work of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who pioneered modern genetics with his study of hybridization in pea plants in the mid-1800s.  Since Mendel’s invaluable contributions, science has observed the results of genetic inheritance and has subsequently attained the ability to reliably predict them.  This, in many cases, has done a great deal of good by allowing science to consider not only the future of organic reproduction, but to describe its history.  The application of Mendel’s work within the framework of Darwinian natural selection has helped to uncover the previously arcane details of the progress by which life on earth was perpetuated.

Unfortunately, this knowledge has also been used for cruel purposes.  The devastating application of scientific understanding that you have often referenced is the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler discovered that the principles of genetic inheritance would allow someone so endowed to alter the trajectory of human evolution to one’s private tastes.  While Hitler’s intentions were unthinkably evil, seizing a capacity for human callousness theretofore unseen, they speak nothing to the truth or viability of the theory on which they were founded.  Eugenics of the sort that Hitler so fiendishly set to work is a terrible and irredeemably wicked application of amoral scientific fact.  Darwin’s theory of evolution can no more be credited for the monstrous actions of Adolf Hitler than Newton’s law of gravity can be credited for the dropping of the atomic bomb.

You have pointed in your own defense to Darwin’s vocabulary when discussing various foreign tribes, but if you take his word selection as a product of the only education one might be afforded at that time and place and consider the content of those words, I believe you might find your stance much more difficult to maintain.  Here is a bit of Darwin in his own words, speaking to the tendency in his contemporaries to describe the population of humanity in distinct species:

Our naturalist would likewise be much disturbed as soon as he perceived that the distinctive characters of all the races were highly variable. This fact strikes every one on first beholding the negro slaves in Brazil, who have been imported from all parts of Africa. The same remark holds good with the Polynesians, and with many other races. It may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant. Savages, even within the limits of the same tribe, are not nearly so uniform in character, as has been often asserted. Hottentot women offer certain peculiarities, more strongly marked than those occurring in any other race, but these are known not to be of constant occurrence. In the several American tribes, colour and hairiness differ considerably; as does colour to a certain degree, and the shape of the features greatly, in the Negroes of Africa. The shape of the skull varies much in some races; and so it is with every other character. Now all naturalists have learnt by dearly bought experience, how rash it is to attempt to define species by the aid of inconstant characters.

And here is a bit more on the same subject:

Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, &c., yet if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races.

It is no coincidence that Darwin’s theory ably dispels racism by rebuking much of the flawed reasoning that would seek to support it.  As the theory of evolution has it, all flora and fauna on this planet are directly related, creating a true family of life on earth.  It is also by this theory that we know there are no fundamental biological differences between the various settlements of human life.  That a person may be deemed in any way inferior to another based on the color of their skin has been so long invalidated that the persistence of this ignorance can only be credited to a willful rejection of fact or unfounded personal bias.  That Darwin could be accused of perpetuating the regrettable legacy of racism is to fundamentally misunderstand his work, either by choice or neglect.

The Case for Darwinism

Evolution by natural selection is as true a scientific fact as any currently known to us.  Literally all available scientific evidence supports Darwin’s model.  Not one bit of legitimate evidence has been found to discredit it.  However, as you always urge your viewers to do, don’t take my word for it.  Please investigate this for yourself.  There is a veritable excess of literature on the subject to be found within any library or bookstore.  I would recommend Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (from which the above passages were taken).  Richard Dawkins recently published perhaps the most contemporary account of evolutionary research to date, titled The Greatest Show on Earth.  Another book of his, The Ancestor’s Tale, charts human evolution backward through time to the very beginning of organic life and is consequently the most thorough record to which I can direct you.  Wonderful books have been written by Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Stephen Jay Gould, and Matt Ridley, among many worthy others.  Any natural history museum should likewise be able to answer any questions you might have, typically displaying casts of fossils and skeletons in addition.  Equipped with any device that can access the Internet, the evidence is quite literally everywhere.

People are often resistant to evolution (and often scientific theory in general) because they believe it undoes the mysteries of the universe and they apparently prefer ambiguity to knowledge.  Science, when properly understood, could never strip wonder from the world.  It can only add to it.  The organic processes occurring in every instant within the myriad variations of life on earth are far more wondrous than any superstition could describe.  Please seek this knowledge for your own sake and for the sake of your followers, to whom you owe a thorough understanding of the subjects on which you speak.  It is my hope that you will become one of the properly informed and cease to be a propounder of misinformation, as you have no doubt unintentionally been in the past.

With the utmost sincerity,

Brian Fabry Dorsam

One Response
  1. John permalink
    February 24, 2011

    Wonderfully well-written.
    Hopefully one day someone can go on his show and tell him this in person.

Comments are closed.