Much ado about Darwin / The progress myth

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better
A little better all the time
(it can’t get more worse)
Lennon/McCartney, “Getting Better”

You could say I’ve lost my faith in science and progress…
– Sting, “If I Ever Lose My Faith”

Most people in the Western world probably know who Charles Darwin is, and understand that that he had something to do with formulating the theory of evolution. If they haven’t learned about him in school, they’ve seen his name inside the little walking fish emblems on many cars. It seems lately that he has become something of a poster child for evolution, scorned by some and sainted (in a matter of speaking) by others.  If he were still alive, he’d probably be wishing people would stop talking about him and leave him in peace.

A few days ago I wrote about the arrogance that is attached to modernism, still the pervasive worldview in the West. Modernism, I think, is essential to our current understanding of science, or at the very least is so intertwined that it’s hard to tell them apart. As I wrote, I think this is true of much Evangelical theology as well, where elements of the scientific approach to knowledge has permeated our thinking. Modernism, growing out of the Enlightenment and the rediscovery and molding of Greek philosophy, focused knowledge on the part rather than the whole, on the individual rather than the community. As a result, you could say that Modernism often fails to see the forest for the trees. Modernism also brought us the myth of objectivity, and the fundamental belief in progress.

In NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope, he discusses the myth of progress and it’s impact on the church as well as on society. He had this to say about Darwin, and the rise of Darwinian thought:

… Darwin was himself not so much the great new thinker, coming from nowhere to his radical new idea, but rather the exact product of his times, one particular high-water mark in the onward rush of liberal modernist optimism, himself the product of a particular evolution of Western thought. The eagerness with which his ideas were embraced and reapplied not only in the narrow biological sphere in which they belonged but also in far wider areas such as society and politics indicates well enough the mood of his times.  …  Evolution, in this more general sense of progress, was already widely believed; it was a deeply convenient philosophy for those who wanted to justify their own massive industrial and imperial expansion; Darwin geve it some apparent scientific legitimacy, which was quickly acted upon and which, within half a century, had been used to justify everything from eugenics to war.  

Wright talks about how this notion of progress – that change is ultimately for the better, and that the future is necessarily better than the past – was adopted by the church as well as by science, and social Darwinism became the social gospel, the belief that the meddling of the church could solve the problem of evil. Not that social work (what we call the mercy ministries) isn’t good, but we can see every day in the news that we as a race – and even as Americans – are no less evil than we were 150 years ago.

What I am asking myself is what is probably the foundational post-modern question (or at least should be): “If we were able to remove the elements of modernism, what would we have left of Christianity, and of science?”  It’s one thing, of course, to ask this question (i.e. “deconstruct”) of Christianity, but altogether another thing to ask this of science.  Without the foundational worldview of modernism, could science survive?  If so, what would it look like? 

I have some thoughts, and I think that especially in areas like quantum physics, where cause and effect sometimes breaks down, we are beginning to see some of this.  To quote from yet another song, “The times, they are a changing.” If Darwin was a product of his times, what kind of scientist is a product of our time?  These are some of the things I think about when I should be sleeping.

One thought on “Much ado about Darwin / The progress myth”

  1. To quote from a book I’ve been reading in the wee small hours of the Ukrainian mornings: “There is more than one history of the world.”

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