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Darwin's Bicentennial and the Death of Darwinism

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February 12, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of naturalist Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species. It is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Each man is known for powerful words that changed our world. But one is still widely embraced as a hero, while the legacy of the other is increasingly being rebuffed.

During his inauguration, U.S. President Barack Obama sought to evoke many Lincoln parallels, placing his hand on Lincoln's inaugural Bible and delivering an inaugural speech titled after a line from Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address. Yet, as the nation reflects on the Lincoln Bicentennial, President Obama is just one of many leaders eager to embrace the former President's legacy.

By contrast, how are some prominent naturalists reacting to the Darwin Bicentennial? In a February 9 New York Times essay titled "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live," Carl Safina, president of the Blue Ocean Institute, tellingly conceded: "…our understanding of how life works since Darwin won't swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism."

Kill the cult of Darwinism? Can we imagine a modern American politician urging us to "kill the cult of Lincoln"? Yet this is the dilemma evolutionists face. By their own admission, key details of Darwin's theories have long since been discredited. Safina writes: "Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him. He knew nothing of heredity or genetics, both crucial to evolution. Evolution wasn't even Darwin's idea."

Indeed, evolution was not Darwin's idea. In 1809 – the year Darwin was born – Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's Philosophie Zoologique asserted that living organisms can pass to their offspring the traits they have developed during their lifetimes – a theory now widely discredited. In The Origin of Species, Darwin accepted a kind of Lamarckism, which was in a sense the "scientific orthodoxy" of his day. Almost immediately after Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, other scientists were able to poke holes in his hypotheses, and before the turn of the 20th century a "neo-Darwinism" was already on the rise, purged of Lamarck's discredited theories.

Evolutionary theory today has left Lamarck – and Darwin – behind in all but the barest details, focusing instead on genetics and the work of modern scientists such as DNA researchers James Watson and Francis Crick. But is it fair to suggest, as does author Thomas Hayden in the February 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine, that "evolution is quite simply the way biology works, the central organizing principle of life on earth"? Certainly, modern scientists have documented some of the powerful mechanisms that allow organisms to live, grow and adapt to their environments. Some of those mechanisms (including Darwin's favorite, natural selection) are together known as "micro-evolution." But to make the jump from observed micro-evolution to a theoretical notion that human beings and field mice shared a common ancestor long ago is a leap of logic not required by the evidence. Biological phenomena such as DNA replication, species adaptation and genetic mutation can be explained scientifically without resorting to macro-evolution. When scientists take the step Hayden describes, evolution has become dogmatic philosophy – even a religion – rather than a description of observed phenomena.

Science is a process of ongoing discovery, and honest scientists will admit that there is much they do not know. Safina in his essay reminds us of Darwin's own words, "It is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance." Just as "modern science" 200 years ago took Lamarck's now-discredited theories as the latest scientific fact, and just as Darwin's 150-year-old theories have been supplanted by newer research, we can reliably predict that four score and seven years from now, many of our present scientific "certainties" will have given way to as-yet-unimagined discoveries – while the truths found in the Bible on which Barack Obama placed his hand last month will remain, unchanged, as valuable as ever.

To learn more about evolutionary theory through the eyes of Scripture, please read our article Evolution: Fact or Fiction? or watch our Tomorrow's World telecast, Was Darwin Wrong? By understanding true science, you will better appreciate the world in which we live.