The following appeared in essential the same form in Sunday’s edition of the San Antonio Express-News opinion section.
Charles Darwin is recognized as one of the pre-eminent scientists of the 19th century, and his remains rest in Westminster Abbey, near those of Isaac Newton. The thing that earned Darwin this distinction was his work earlier in the century—establishment of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Biological evolution was not a novel concept at the time. Anaximander of Miletus (610-546 B.C.) was an early thinker who proposed that one species could descend from another. Medieval Islamic science also included the concept. But by the early 19th century scientists still had no mechanism to drive the process. Darwin’s contribution was the idea that random variation, coupled with natural selection, provides this capability. Destined as a young man for the clergy, his life was changed by a voyage around the world, a scientific expedition underwritten by his government. His observations on the trip started him to thinking about what could drive evolution, but he did not publish until 1858, when Alfred Russel Wallace hit upon the same idea. The two published concurrently, and the following year Darwin’s seminal book, “The Origin of Species,” set the world on fire.
What Darwin had done was to demolish the remaining link between religion and the natural world. Previous scientists had demonstrated our planet is not the center of the universe, and the earth is millions (later billions) of years old—in direct contradiction to the Genesis story that was the foundation for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Darwin removed any need for supernatural processes, especially anything resembling the God of Abraham, to explain human existence. To many people this undercut the very basis for human morality, and it cast their lives adrift in a purposeless world. The tension extends to this day.
Well into the 21st century rational-thinking people continue to find it necessary to defend truth and reason against attack. It is now barely seven years prior to the Scopes Trial centennial, and scientists and scholars daily endure challenges by creationists of a wide spectrum, all pushing some challenge to established science. The governor of Texas appoints a known creationist to head the State Board of Education, and three prominent creationists are observed reviewing biology text books for the Texas Education Agency. A known fan of Intelligent Design is appointed Secretary of Education. And biology is not the only science under attack.
An Oklahoma senator displays a snowball as evidence against human-caused global warming. Worse, applause comes from a like-minded base of American voters. A disgraced physician publishes a fraudulent paper linking vaccines to autism. Millions of parents withhold vaccines from their children, with tragic results.
Disregard for verifiable fact now permeates the American political landscape. An outlandish rumor takes life about the time of the presidential election and quickly engulfs a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Accurate reporting puts the lie to the story, but, against all reason, a person caught up in the frenzy goes so far as to barge into the restaurant, brandishing a firearm and discharging it. The story retains life to this day, due to people’s willingness to believe in the face of contrary evidence. A participant in an Arizona rally in January is heard saying this story requires further investigation.
An American presidential candidate lays a carpet of false statements, continuing into his tenure as the country’s leader. News outlets print the truth, which is then proclaimed to be fake news. Millions of voters pick up the chant.
This lack of respect for the verifiable fact is a malaise that threatens the health of a great industrial nation. The solution will not come from the top. A well-informed citizenry needs to push back against attacks on logic and reason. Clear-thinking people need to come forward when they see or hear something that is obviously not right. A lone voice of resistance should become a million. And the voice should be loud, clear, and firm. There must be no backing down in defense of what is demonstrably true.
The freethinker movement has a history in Central Texas. Immigrants from Germany settled here in the mid 19th century, and their legacy of resistance to absolutism in religion and government has seeped into our society. The Freethinkers Association of Central Texas (FACT) continues this tradition, championing open discussion and insisting on respect for rational thinking. More than an anti-religious gathering, it serves as a channel for many who hold compassion and respect for human dignity above the exigencies of political power. On Darwin Day we resolve to continue Darwin’s legacy of championing fact before fable.
The Freethinkers Association of Central Texas meets informally for lunch the first and second Tuesday each month, and for breakfast at Denny’s on Fredericksburg Road the last Saturday each month. The next meeting is Tuesday, 13 February, at Hacienda Vallarta on Bandera Road at 1:00 p.m. Public welcome.