SAVING DARWIN’S “FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL:”
How We Evolved From the Stars
By Paul H. Carr, Ph. D.
I would like to thank Lorraine Berry of our Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Bradenton, FL for inviting me to speak today, and Rev. Dee Graham for adjusting her busy schedule to make this possible.
I have often grappled with the question, “How can I reconcile the Biblical creation stories with evolutionary science?” I learned these creation stories growing up as the son of a Methodist minister. Today, I will share how I have found reconciliation. I was amazed to learn how Charles Darwin, after being educated to be an Anglican clergyman, discovered the evolution of the species by natural selection. Secondly, I hope you will share my concern for saving Darwin’s divinely-created, forms most beautiful from the onslaught of our technological civilization.
Charles Darwin’s best-selling book “Origin of the Species: by Means of Natural Selection” was published in 1859. Darwin’s love of the “forms most beautiful” is, I believe, expressed in its concluding paragraph” as follows:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, that after having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Many, like David Henry Thoreau, was one of the first Americans to read the Origin, accepted Darwin's evolution of the "forms most beautiful" by variations and the natural selection law.
Thoreau wrote, "Evolution implies a greater vital force in nature, because it is more flexible and accommodating, and equivalent to a sort of constant new creation." Others, including many churched people, rejected Darwin in his day and some still do. Nevertheless, evolution is a cornerstone of modern biology
After Darwin’s birth in February 12, 1809, he was baptized Anglican and as a youth attended a Unitarian chapel. While studying at Cambridge University to be an Anglican clergyman, he would go on nature walks to collect the forms most beautiful. After Darwin’s graduation, he had the opportunity to become the naturist on HMS “Beagle,” which was about to embark on a voyage around the world.
His dad was against this. As most parents would agree, he wanted his son to take the “real clergy job” that dad had paid for. It was Darwin’s uncle that convinced dad to let son Charles go on the voyage. It enabled Darwin to investigate the “forms most beautiful” all around the word.
While in the Galapagos Islands, for example, he noted that the turtles and the finches on each island were different. Finches on the islands with a large insect population had thin beaks, and large, sturdy ones on islands with lots of nuts. This led him to his idea of “descent with modification,” as evolution was first called.
Darwin was familiar with plant and animal breeding. Would the cute, darling, cat-sized domestic dogs we have today survive in the wild? What kind of dogs do we find in nature? Wolves and coyotes survive in the wild, but not little lap dogs. Nature selects wolves. We humans select the smallest from a litter of new-born pups. By doing this for many generations of dogs, we have selected the cute little lap dogs that we have today. Examples such as this this led to Darwin’s evolution by variations and the natural selection law. Nature selects variations that can survive in the wild. We humans select the domestic animals that serve and please us.
In 1838 after returning from Darwin’s voyage around the world, he wrote a paper on his revolutionary idea of descent with modification, the evolution of the forms most beautiful. He requested his beloved wife Emma to publish it in the event that he might die. Charles Darwin was a mild and somewhat sickly person, who did not relish the social and religious controversy that its publication might cause. He also did not want to upset Emma who adored him. She was deeply religious. The possibility that she and Charles might not be together in eternity terrified her. They did cope with this gulf between them, as well as with the heartbreaking tragedy of the deaths of 3 of their 10 children. Charles and Emma Darwin’s marriage was a real and touching love story.
Then 20 years later, Darwin was scooped! Alfred Russell Wallace, a collector in the Malay Peninsula, sent Darwin a short paper that had the same evolutionary “descent with modification” that Darwin had discovered in 1838. Both Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers were presented shortly thereafter at scientific meeting in London. After this, Darwin quickly wrote up his origin of the forms most beautiful. His “Origin of the Species: By Means of Natural Selection” sold out on the first day of its publication in 1859. It has never been out of print.
This sparked a debate a year later between Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford and Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Legend has it that seeking to score a point; the Bishop of Oxford baited Huxley by enquiring,
“Would you prefer to think of yourself as descended from an ape on your grandfather's or grandmother's side?”
After a moment of silence in which you might have heard a pin drop, Huxley replied,
“I am not ashamed to have descended from an ape, but I would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts and high position to obscure the truth."
This controversy came home to Ginny and me last December. After hearing a Bach Cantata at the Emanuel Church in Boston, we were talking to a couple during the coffee hour. After telling them that I had written a book, “Beauty in Science and Spirit,” he asked me.
“Would you please help me? My wife is a Bible-believing Christian who has trouble reconciling the Biblical creation stories with evolution.”
What brief answer could I give? So I said,
“The Bible tells us that God created everything that is. Evolution tells us how God did it.” In retrospect, I might also have added the astronomer Galileo’s wisdom,
“The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
The first chapter or Genesis, written about 2500 years ago, was consistent with the cosmology of its day. It was amazing similar to the Babylonian creation story. What was the major difference? The Babylonian story was polytheistic while Genesis is monotheistic. The creation in Genesis occurred in stages, epochs, or days in a manner somewhat similar to Darwinian evolution.
I am amazed that nature's spontaneity and our human freedom result in such a beautiful universe. Nature with its variations and the natural selection law is a manifestation of divine creativity. Our rapture at seeing, for example, a beautiful butterfly, we can attribute to a design. The evolutionary interplay between chance and law, however, is not design from a predetermined human blueprint.
“Evolution is design to, not design from” according to philosopher Michael Ruse (2003). Evolution is a beautiful vision for the future, not a detailed plan. Beauty comes from the harmonious balance between chance and necessity. In addition to Darwin’s natural selection, he wrote “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).” Sexual selection is governed by what we and other creatures perceive as beautiful in the opposite sex.
I now come to the second part of my message. Darwin also wrote,
“If everyone were cast in the same mold, there would be no such thing as beauty.”
It is the variations that make beauty possible. For me, “forms most beautiful” also include vast mountain ranges that are the home of deer and mountain goats. When the arboreal forests in Canada are destroyed to mine oil from the tar sands, these “forms most beautiful” are destroyed.
While talking to people about my book on beauty, people often tell me, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This raises the question,
Is beauty “in the eye of the beholder” or/and an encounter with the Divine?
Without divinely created beauty, nature becomes an object that may be ravaged. For example, tar-sands mines can be beautiful in the eyes of their owners because mines are a source of black gold. Let us re-envision beauty to transform our relationship with the earth and its creatures. Science is based on respect for nature’s laws. Spirituality engenders reverence for and the consecration of nature, created, sustained, and redeemed by a Divine Power.
Hopefully, this new vision of beauty as physical and divine will unite energy technology with the forces of spiritual values to save Darwin’s “forms most beautiful.” Wind and solar energy are the most sustainable forms of energy. The ancient windmills of Holland adorn most Dutch paintings. Will this ever happen in the US?
Recent advances in solar-rooftop photovoltaic cells have lowered the cost of this form of electricity to 10 cents per kilowatt hour, less than most of us can buy from the grid. Electric cars now get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. Conservation and efficiency can decrease our addiction to fossil fuels whose carbon dioxide emissions are causing global warming.
Nature seems beautiful to us because we are an integral part of it. Saving Darwin’s “forms most beautiful” must constrain short-term economic gain with long-term ecology.
Jesuit geologist Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. saw God as guiding evolution towards higher levels of complexity and centrality, which will converge in an Omega Point. We read in Revelations 22:13, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” This is a religious expression of spiritual hope, “the new heaven and the new earth,” which motivates and gives meaning to life. Teilhard wrote, “The end of the world will detach the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weight on God-Omega."
Process theologian and Harvard philosophy Professor Alfred North Whitehead (1933) envisioned God as continually luring (not coercing) the whole creation towards enriching diversity, harmony, and beauty. This is expressed as in this short poem:
“Praise to the living God,
From whom all things derive,
Whose Spirit formed upon this sphere the first faint seeds of life;
Who caused them to evolve, unwittingly, towards God's goal,
Till humankind stood on the earth,
As living, thinking souls. (By Curtis Breach, 1966)”
"The universe is not a place where evolution happens. It is evolution happening” (according to philosopher Loyal Rue (2000)). The world about is not static and dead. It is alive with new surprises, a “constant new creation” as Thoreau put it.
I would like to conclude by telling you what we have discovered, in the last century. The simplest and most abundant atoms of hydrogen have evolved into humans, in this manner. Hydrogen atoms fuse together in the stars to form helium, lithium, and heavier elements, such as the carbon, oxygen, and calcium, from which our bodies are made.
Many stars at the end of their lives explode into spectacular supernovae, which we see though telescopes, like the Hubble, as cosmic dust. Gravity pulls this dust together to form new stars and planets, including the sun and our earth. New stars are thus born from the death of the old, in a “constant new creation. “ We too are stardust, but created through evolution in the “Image of God.” From dust we came and to dust we return…….But we have come from the stars… So that’s how we are the light of the world….So let’s go twinkle! Amen.
Speaker PAUL H. CARR, BS, MS, MIT; PhD, Brandeis U; led a branch of the AF Research Laboratory which pioneered the development of miniature filters now used in radar, TV, and cell phones. He has authored over 80 scientific papers and has 10 patents. The John Templeton Foundation awarded him grants for the philosophy courses on science and religion he taught at U Mass Lowell. This inspired his book Beauty in Science & Spirit. Dr. Carr is a life Fellow of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electrical Engineers) and co-edited the Newsletter of the New England Section of the American Physical Society. He lectures at universities, professional societies, and life-long-learning groups. His web page is www.MirrorOfNature.org