Sailing with Darwin

Posted March 24th, 2011 by kcorliss. Comment (0).

I just finished Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. He freely admits he’s not a great writer. That much is true. And for the most part the book is rather boring and somewhat repetitive. In a lot of ways it’s similar to hearing someone talk about their vacation for eight hours. Still, there is much to savor in this narrative. Who doesn’t secretly desire a sailing trip around the world?

What was more striking than anything for me was Darwin’s wide grasp of all natural sciences. He’s one part biologist, one part paleontologist, one part meteorologist, one part geologist, one part entomologist, one part ichthyologist, one part vulcanologist, one part ornithologist, one part botanist, one part ethnographer, and one part oceanographer.

Meriwether Lewis was similarly trained for months by Jefferson and his staff prior to the Corps of Discovery’s epic journey. But Lewis’s science skills pale in comparison. Darwin was truly a scientist of his time, although he didn’t shoulder the burden of leading a group of men.

Secondly, his pattern of deep thinking is revealed in his writings, something I truly admire. This was a man who questioned everything, whether it was some new observation or a challenge to existing dogma, it was all on the table. In this regard I suppose his musing was in keeping with prior Age of Reason thinkers. Still, nothing escaped his notice. Whether it was a minute fly species or a sea slug, Darwin examined everything like a curious child. Another admirable trait.

I was also struck by how much scientific knowledge existed at the time. A great many species of all animals were already described by prior biologists, even in the far reaches of the tropics. In addition, a pretty good feel for the makeup of the earth’s crust and descriptions of rock strata was pretty well understood. (Plate tectonics were still to be learned, however, and so when he was rocked by a huge earthquake and tsunami while in Chile in 1835, his theories were lacking).

As a practicing Christian one would think I have a problem with Darwin. I don’t. There is plenty of room for an omnipotent God in the creation and subsequent evolution of the earth I feel. Darwin, himself, supposedly renounced Christianity later in life, to his detriment I think. Pure Evolutionists get downright giddy when denouncing God and elevating Darwin to hero status. They treat him and natural selection as a religion of its own. But I think they might be missing something.

Darwin, you see, came from a time when the Church viewed the Bible as absolute and quite literal. Some still do. So when he was faced with facts which countered biblical dogma–such as the age of the rocks for instance–it didn’t fit the Church’s view. In a way it was sort of an ‘all or nothing’ approach to science vs. religion: if Genesis’s description of the age of the earth is wrong, then the whole thing’s wrong. There was no room for nuanced interpretation. Thus, the times themselves forced Darwin to take the science he was seeing as fact, and to shun the Bible. At least that’s my take.

As for me, I believe there is room for both science and God.

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