The quiet revolutionary

The quiet revolutionary

Empire of the Mind

Gurucharan Gollerkeri. Credit: DH Photo

If you had to pick an original work that tells a fascinating story of a scientific revolution in enchanting prose, there is but one choice: ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ (The Origin), by Charles Darwin. First published in 1859, The Origin is simply beautiful and true, and transformed the zeitgeist of the early 19th century, ushering in an ideological step-change. Darwin founded fundamental principles for a secular view of life: the modern conception of evolution, the common descent of all species of living beings from a single primordial source, and the process of evolution as ‘Natural Selection’.

Charles Robert Darwin, born in England in 1809, graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1831 and in the following year, went aboard the HMS Beagle as a Naturalist, in what was a four-year definitive voyage that altered the course of modern biology. Darwin was not just genius at work; he was the quiet revolutionary who transformed science and society. He eliminated the idea of ‘God’, as commonly accepted in the day, in the origin of life and provided scientific rationale to explain all organic phenomena, setting in motion a powerful intellectual revolution. In a delicious irony, Charles Darwin had been pinned down by his father to a career in the Church, before he accepted the offer to sail aboard the HMS Beagle. Just as well, for what was the Church’s loss became Science’s greatest gain.

While surveying the Galapagos Islands in 1832, Darwin made perspicacious observations that were to form the bases for his celebrated theory of evolution by ‘Natural Selection’. “The natural history of these islands is eminently curious,” he wrote in his journal. It indeed was: The 10 rocky islands were home to many plants and animals, but with great variety. Each island appeared to have its own species. Could this extraordinary diversity really be explained by an origin myth -- that God had created all the species on Earth?

On his return, Darwin turned his attention to the study of barnacles and came up with one extraordinary insight that had foundational influence on his thinking. Barnacles are usually hermaphroditic, with each having both kinds of sex organs. It was Darwin who discovered first one and then several species, in which there were two distinct sexes. “I never should have made this out,” writes Darwin, “had not my species theory convinced me that a hermaphrodite species must pass into a bisexual species by insensibly small stages”.

Despite being on the cusp of a transformative scientific discovery, Darwin delayed publication of The Origin fearing public outrage because he was refuting the core religious teachings regarding the origins of life on earth. At its heart, the process of Natural Selection was a profound philosophic advance, unknown in the two thousand years of the progress of human knowledge: unknown to the Greeks, to classical Rome, to Europe’s renowned philosophic tradition; indeed, unknown even to the great body of knowledge nearer us, the Upanishads. It was Darwin who first asserted, and I quote, “All the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed”.

The true greatness of Darwin’s principle of Natural Selection is that it finally set at rest the absurd question ‘why’, and made unnecessary the Aristotelean invocation of ‘final causes’ guiding humans toward a particular end, typified in the purposes of life that religions invoke. In one swell swoop, Darwin had demolished the worldview that organised religion had carefully constructed and had come to rule the minds of gullible men and women. For over a century and a half, Darwin’s theory of evolution, with minor modifications based on the advances in genetics, is the most scientific that we have. Modern biology began with Darwin, yet the ambivalence towards one of the greatest scientists and the knowledge he generated points to the crisis of the scientific temper, weakened as it is with its incessant battles with bigotry, and the power of myth and superstition on our minds.

Science and faith respond to completely different kinds of questions. People should acknowledge that sacred scriptures are not science, and that Darwinian science has nothing to do with faith. The Origin is one of the most influential scientific texts ever written, so what might we draw from it: Life is first, chance and then, necessity. There is no supreme design preceding existence. In the march of human progress, many Gods have died to give birth to new. After all, God is an idea, the idea of perfection. We therefore need to take responsibility for our own actions. The meaning of life is simply, ethical action -- each contributing to the work of ongoing creation of a better world, embracing the scientific temper, diversity, and some
common sense.

(Gurucharan Gollerkeri: The former civil servant enjoys traversing the myriad spaces of ideas, thinkers, and books)

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