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Darwin debate rages on 150 years after "Origin"

PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - Even 150 years after it first appeared in print, Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” still fuels clashes between scientists convinced of its truth and critics who reject its view of life without a creator.

A detail of British artist John Collier's 1883 painting of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin's former home, Down House, in Kent, southern England February 12, 2009. REUTERS/Tal Cohen

This “Darwin Year” -- so named because February 12 was the 200th anniversary of the British naturalist’s birth and November 24 the 150th anniversary of his book -- has seen a flood of books, articles and conferences debating his theory of evolution.

While many covered well-trodden ground, some have taken new paths. But no consensus is in sight, probably because Darwinian evolution is both a powerful scientific theory describing how life forms develop through natural selection and a basis for philosophies and social views that often include atheism.

“People are encountering and rejecting evolution not so much as a science but as a philosophy,” Nick Spencer, director of studies at the public theology think-tank Theos in London, told Reuters.

“Today’s most eloquent Darwinians often associate evolution with atheism ... amorality (and) the idea there is no design or purpose in the universe.”

He said many people had embraced anti-evolution views in the United States and Britain in recent decades “not so much because they are rejecting evolution as a science, although that is often how that sentiment is articulated, but because they’re rejecting it as a philosophy about life.”

“It’s quite possible to be an evolutionist and not to hold that philosophy about life, to be an evolutionist and still believe in God and purpose and design,” he said.


Creationism, the idea God made the world as described in the Bible, and the “intelligent design” view positing an unnamed creator are usually linked to conservative U.S. Protestant groups in the United States.

A conference last week in Alexandria, Egypt, focussed on how widespread anti-evolution views also are in the Muslim world, where believers cite the Koran’s account of creation -- somewhat similar to the Bible’s -- to reject Darwinism as atheist.

Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, said 62 percent of the Muslim students and professors on his campus said in a recent survey that evolution was “just an unproven theory.”

Only 10 percent of non-Muslim professors agreed. He also cited a poll saying 80 percent of Pakistani students doubted evolution and many teachers misunderstood the scientific theory.

“It will take a long, sustained effort, and a compassionate approach” to convince such Muslims that evolution need not negate faith, he said. “‘More biology’ does not improve the situation much (and) ‘more science’ does not work.”


In Paris on Monday, a conference at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) heard several scientists who accept evolution argue Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.

“We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism,” said French philosopher of science Jean Staune, author of the new book “Au-dela de Darwin” (Beyond Darwin). “Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws.”

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand’s University of Otago, said Darwinian “functionalists” believed life forms adapted to the outside world while his “structuralist” view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.

His view, which he called “extraordinarily foreign to modern biology,” explained why many animals developed eyes like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

Denton said he was a religious agnostic seeking answers to unresolved scientific questions.

“Our knowledge of biology is actually very limited,” he said. “I have no axe to grind -- I’ll leave it to science to find this out.”

Editing by Jon Boyle