Darwin Year is not the year of atheism

As you might have already known, the year 2009 is also the "Darwin Year." It is the bicentennial of the birthday of the great British naturalist, and sesquicentennial of publication of his famous book "The Origin of Species." Hence we hear a lot these days about evolution, its history and, most important of all, its meaning.

That meaning is what makes the theory of evolution interesting to most of us. Unlike other theories of science, such as the one on plate tectonics, Darwin’s idea deals with essential questions such as where we humans came from. That’s why various ideologies, ranging from Marxism to racism, have tried to make use of Darwin’s theory in order to vindicate their philosophical claims. But none of these philosophical claims have been as ambitious and persistent as the one advanced by the atheists. They claim to know that there is no God, and that Darwin’s theory makes that presupposition highly credible.

The fitness of environment

In other words, atheists -- at least the most evangelical of them, such as Richard Dawkins -- interpret Darwinian evolution in an atheistic framework. This often leads religious believers to take a defensive, or sometime offensive, stance against evolution. Atheists respond by referring to the classic science-versus-blind-faith clichŽ. And the vicious cycle goes on.

Yet it is possible to get out of that cycle. For that Darwinism does not vindicate atheism. What it refutes is not theism (faith in God), but only a literalist interpretation of Scriptures.

Let me explain. From the atheist’s perspective, what Darwinism does is to explain life on Earth as the products of two basic dynamics: natural laws and random happenings. (French atheist Jasques Monod had called them "chance and necessity.") Once they explain the emergence and variety of life by these two factors, they believe, they will take God out of the picture.

But let’s wait a minute, and take a closer look at natural laws. These are the constant rules that govern the physical universe: Water freezes and boils at certain temperatures, certain chemicals react with each other, and apples fall down from trees. We all know that. But there are two good questions that we should ask: Why these laws exist in the first place? And, moreover, what would happen if they were different?

The first question led philosophers throughout history to infer a "Law Giver." That is, of course, a speculation. That’s why the second question might make more sense, because it can help us understand whether there was a purpose behind these laws, or they just popped up out of nothing, accidentally, giving us an accidental universe.

The first modern scientist to address this question, as far as I know, was Lawrence Joseph Henderson, whose 1913 book, "The Fitness of the Environment," examined "the biological significance of the properties of matter." Looking at the amazingly "well-fit" properties of water, and other elements of the environment, he concluded that they were surprisingly "bio-centric." In other words, if evolution were a four-billion-year-long show, its stage was perfectly prepared.

The idea took a new dimension when astrophysicist Brandon Carter proposed the idea of "Anthropic Principle," in 1973, at a symposium honoring Copernicus's 500th birthday. Copernicus had shown that we humans were not at the center of the universe, but Carter’s findings were suggesting that we are actually at the center of its purpose. Because all the constants of the physical laws of the universe were "just right" in order to allow the emergence of life. If the nuclear forces were just a little different, for example, there would not even be atoms in the universe, let alone planets, trees and people. Same "fine-tuning" was found in gravity, magnetism and chemical laws, too.

As the evidence for the Anthropic Principle piled, many physicist started to the doubt and even reject the materialist conception of cosmology. "It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the universe," said Paul Davis, a British astrophysicist. "The impression of design is overwhelming."

Now, in such a "designed" universe, biological evolution does not imply anything other than the unfolding of a cosmic plan for the making of life and its amazing diversity. Philosophically it doesn’t really matter much whether a specific group of reptiles evolved into birds, or some hominids slowly turned into Homo sapiens. What matters is whether there was a purpose behind all this. And the "new physics," to use Davies’ term, strongly suggests that there is indeed such a purpose.

Therefore, unless your idea of "creation" is an extremely literalist one which makes you expect a divine hand coming down from the sky to instantly form a new species, you should be fine with such a predestined evolution as a believer.

That’s why the Darwin Year is not the year of atheism. Atheists might like to think so, but theirs is wishful thinking, not a realist one.
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