What is the legacy of Charles Darwin?
He would likely be apalled to know that his groundbreaking work has fomented so much conflict, been the basis for eugenics, and divides many into red state and blue state style, political debates.
On the other highly evolved hand, he would likely be heartened to know so many true scientists and every day people recognize that they are part of a much larger creation, and as animals, humans too, belong in the great web of being.
The theory of evolution has a long and varied legacy. It affects everything from World wars to deforestation. People take the gems of a truth and mount it into their own needed rationale for what people do, both constructively and destructively.
Darwin recently was celebrated upon his 200th birthday, along with Abraham Lincoln. Two men changed history, but changes Darwin wrought remain more controversial. No where are people more riled up than in the United States, where protests still erupt over “Darwinism.” What is Darwinism? Dispute arose because people misunderstand what Darwin wrote. Others misinterpret it, using the word Darwinism as a pejorative term, akin to racism, or sexism.
Social Darwinism is the idea that our actions, or more “noble” birth, somehow make some of us superior to others, and all of us superior to other life forms. Nothing could be further from Darwinism as Darwin saw it. He saw grandeur in our belonging to the earth and earth’s wide interdependent systems of nurturing and balancing all the beauty of the world.
Philosophers and scientists, and sadly world leaders all took up the banner of the new scientific knowledge of humans being somehow more “evolved” although that is not at all the theory. Philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Marx were all influenced by the theory of evolution. Many world leaders, most notably, Hitler, appropriated the idea of evolution and took it to his most perverse and hideous outcome. It can be said that Darwin’s ideas changed Europe the most, in that those who ran with them into their darkest manifestations brought Marxism, Communism, Nazism, and even nihilism into vogue.
The 1859 book was called On the Origin of Species, and the word evolution itself appears no where in the original text. Without knowledge of DNA, or even genetics, Darwin explores what he calls “natural selection.” Who/what is selecting? In nature, the environment selects by favoring those traits that gradually allow an organism to better survive and reproduce.
Where people got very confused was in that they somehow interpreted this struggle for survival to be driven by better human choices, power, strength or beauty. The idea of racial purity is sheer nonsense, since there is only one human race. Biologists seldom used the term survival of the fittest, because it seems to imply that people who are “more fit”, “superior,” can better rule the world. The idea of this led to Social Darwinism, and eugenics, which in Europe was shaped into concepts and movements that ironically spawned both the Soviet regimes, and the Nazis. Lots of good ideas become corrupted. One might say they evolve or devolve, depending upon how those trying to conquer others, twist them, into distorted ideologies.
The very idea of a manifest destiny, that upheld white men as being somehow superior to others, is another appropriated and twisted version of Darwin’s ideas. The idea that science and technology should conquer nature, is a destructive view that many unfairly, but sadly, trace to Darwin. Now the world is in serious trouble for such views, and people at last are realizing that nature needs to be nurtured if biodiversity is to continue to support a sustainable balance.
In recognizing that variation occurs in nature over eons of time, these variations are favored (or not) by climate, geology, predators, polar shift, and more, Darwin was able to realize that all organisms are related. We living things are miraculously varied, adapted brilliantly, and specialized.