Darwin & Holding onto Old Ideas. What They Have in Common.

First edition Origin of the Species

Darwin may have worried about the impact of his ideas. Turns out he didn’t need to.

Back in 1838, Charles Darwin was reading MalthusAn Essay on the Principle of Population. He was already fifteen months into figuring out how new varieties of life formed, but what struck him in Malthus’ book was the idea of checks and balances in nature that maintained populations. Writing in his notebook on September 28, 1838 Darwin said those external factors were “a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones”. It was the beginning of his ideas on natural selection.

Twenty years later on November 24, 1859 On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published. Twenty years. According to the Natural History’s website, Darwin spent those years “agonising over every detail.”

Although Dr John van Wyhe in his essay “Mind The Gap: Did Darwin Avoid Publishing His Theory For Many Years?” shuts down the idea Darwin was nervous about the impact of his ideas on a creationist worldview, I think it’s disingenuous to think Darwin wasn’t concerned about how his work would be received. But if Darwin did worry about offering a theory of natural selection, it turns out he didn’t need to.

Darwin’s Idea: Yet To Catch On

A PEW Research Center analysis published in the fading moments of last year shows that 33% of American adults don’t believe in evolution. With an idea that would have been at home in the Victorian age, the poll found those 33% believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Of those who do acknowledge evolution, “roughly a quarter of adults (24%) say that ‘a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.’”

What are we to make of that?

The More Things Change…

Well, for one thing, that’s not the first time a good idea’s been rejected to keep a belief system going.

Throughout history people have a done a good job of holding onto whatever cherished idea they hold regardless of the evidence against it.

Back in the 17th century what people wanted to believe was that the Earth was the centre of the solar system. Actually of all creation. The stickler was explaining why Mars and the other known planets fall behind the Earth at some points as they pass through the sky. The phenomena’s called planetary retrograde and it’s one of the reasons Copernicus put the Sun at the centre of the solar system. You can watch an animation of the Mars retrograde as seen from Earth here.

But having rejected Copernicus and his ideas, astronomers at the time came up with ever more complex explanations for why this happened. And here’s what they did: they deemed that for no apparent reason planets moved in small circles or epicycles which in turn move along a larger circle in what we’d think of as a very complex orbit. If that sends your mind spinning, you can check out an animation of epicycles here. The advantage of this idea was that it explained why sometimes Mars went backwards.

As inventive as that explanation was it only worked for so long before more accurate data cast doubt on it. But once again that didn’t stop anyone from believing it. Instead, the astronomers of the day came up with epicycles within epicycles, or little circles within little circles. “Planets,” these astronomers were saying, “don’t just have one epicycle, but within the first epicycle, there’s another and another and another.”

All the additions necessary to keep the idea of circular orbits and an Earth centred solar system alive. Johannes Kepler, using Tycho Brahe’s data, offered a very simple reason for planetary retrograde. One that didn’t need epicycles. Adopting Copernicus’s sun-centred solar system, Kepler showed that planets don’t move in circles at all. They move in elliptical orbits. His three laws of planetary motion explained why planetary retrograde happened and predicted orbits for planets that hadn’t yet been discovered. No mental gymnastics, no philosophical mumbo-jumbo, just an observation based on what’s really happening.

Four Options for Handling New Ideas

One thing faulty logic has in common the world over is that it starts with a conclusion and finds, distorts or invents data to support it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s the thing: I think there’s four options we face when we come across an idea that challenges the way we think about the world. We can:

1. Ignore it and pretend the idea doesn’t exist.

2. Shoehorn it into our current ideas like our 17th century astronomer friends.

3. Denounce it.

4. Let the new information refine our idea if possible, or lead us to a better one.

God: Time for a New Idea

Historically, in the God debate, number four hasn’t been a popular option. It’s why, as Oliver Burkeman’s writes in The Guardian, the modern God debate has become “mind-numbingly circular” with each side arguing for the existence of a God that may or may not exist. The problem with those debates is that both side fail to move the conversation forward.

And since no-one has (or maybe even can) prove there is no God. And since the idea of a creator and personal God seems silly to many. Well, maybe it’s time for a new way to understand God. One  that isn’t contrary to evidence and reason. Maybe it’s time for the next stage in the God concept.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2014. All rights reserved.