1836. A young English naturalist named Charles Darwin had just returned from nearly five years of traveling around the world. 23 years later he would publish On the Origin of Species, and the scientific landscape would be changed indefinitely.
Last week, the city of Charleston held a series of seminars in celebration of Darwin Week. As part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Festival, these seminars were meant to educate students and professionals on topics relating to evolutionary biology as well as to celebrate the birthday of one of modern science’s most influential contributors. One of the common themes discussed was the relationship and compatibility between Darwin’s theories and religious beliefs.
What does this mean for students? Apart from a few mentions in science classes and the occasional, albeit rare, reference in pop culture, Darwin doesn’t seem all that important to daily life. What could Darwin, and Darwin Week in particular, give students that they can use in the future?
According to Dr. Jon Hakkila, a Physics and Astronomy professor at The College and a speaker at one of the seminars, Darwin Week is about reflecting on the scientific thought processes that are important in unbiased research. Hakkila believes that the correct method of thinking is often different than people might assume.
“I think that the general public doesn’t always understand science and the scientific method,” Hakkila explains. “I think that a lot of times when they evaluate their perception of the world around them, they tend to think in terms of absolutes. They think it’s either this or that. A scientist actually tends to think more the opposite. Instead of trying to prove something, scientists typically try to disprove something. So this mode of thinking I think is really important for students to learn.”
How does this relate to religion? Not everyone is a scientist, and many people have beliefs that they espouse unapologetically, regardless of available facts. How harmful, if at all, is a religious view that comes into direct conflict with scientific evidence?
According to Darwin himself, “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” Of course, the difficulty with this quote is determining whose views are false. One of the reasons why the debate between religion and science has drawn on so long is that many people have legitimate reasons why they believe what they believe. The standard of what is true and what is false often differs significantly. Darwin Week in particular celebrates the standard set by the scientific method. How are religious beliefs compatible?
Charleston has long been known as the Holy City, and Christianity has long been the bedrock of the value system here, as well as in much of the South. Many things have changed, of course, but there is still a heavy presence of the judeo-christian faith in Charleston as evidenced by the numerous church steeples that still lord over the peninsular skyline.
Dr. Hakkila is no stranger to Christianity. “I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico,” he says, “which is the home of the atomic bomb. There are more churches per capita than I think any other town in the country.” However, Hakkila believes the relationship between science and religion is more compatible than some might claim. After all, scientists and religious individuals tend to look for the same things in the world around us. “Scientists are often people who look for order, and I think people who follow religion closely are people who look for order.”
Dr. Jeremy Rutledge, senior minister at Circular Congregational Church in downtown Charleston and speaker during Darwin Week, ironically, appreciates Darwin for the exact opposite reason. “Much is made of Darwin displacing God,” Rutledge explains. “I tend to think that he really displaced us. He displaced us from being so special; from being the center of the universe.”
Darwin Week is a time where people of differing beliefs with a mutual respect for scientific inquiry can come together and discuss the deeper questions of the universe. Whether or not human beings are descended from other species, it is clear that we have a capability to reflect on our place in the universe that they, to our knowledge, do not have.
As Darwin stated, “The very essence of instinct is that it’s followed independently of reason.”