Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

The danger of worshipping Darwin

By Andrew Marr
Presenter, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Andrew Marr
Andrew Marr gets to grips with Darwin's Dangerous Idea

His vast brow hangs over us all. His foamy white beard cascades down in the familiar Michelangelo Old Testament style.

He speaks to mankind of ancient origins and end times.

In this year of his double anniversary, are we in danger of turning Charles Darwin if not into God, at least into the founder of a secular religion?

I'm a lapsed Presbyterian Christian. I had a blinding revelation of disbelief at the age of around 15.

It was every bit as clear and convincing as others describe revelations of faith.

Back then, I explained to the school chaplain that I could accept religion, but only as a metaphor - Heaven and Hell on Earth, that sort of thing.

Kindly but firmly, and rightly, he said that no, this would not be sufficient.

There's no doubt that Darwinism, and indeed scientific truth generally, can supply people like me with some of the nourishment religion offers.

Richard Dawkins wrote an excellent book, Unweaving the Rainbow, about this.

But aren't there also dangers in trying to replace religion with a secular equivalent?

Churches to science

Late last year, during filming, I visited both the Kensington and Oxford University natural history museums.

A pair of magnificent buildings, they are startlingly and unmistakably like Christian cathedrals.

In Oxford, the delicate carvings of animals and plants entwine pillars and arches, while statues of scientists look like latter-day saints.

In London, Darwin himself presides over the nave, as Gothic, Venetian and Renaissance styles jostle round.

The Natural History Museum, London
The cathedral-like Natural History Museum, London

I've since learned, thanks to Sir David Attenborough, that the London building by Waterhouse was always meant to mimic a cathedral.

Its founder, Richard Owen, wanted the museum to be a "temple of nature" and when it opened, it was dubbed "the animals' Westminster Abbey".

But where is Owen's statue now? An enemy of Darwin, hustled away from the altar to make way for Charles D.

Though he coined the word dinosaur and was a remarkable fellow, he is generally cast out as a disbeliever, schismatic and bad egg.

And what are most sacred objects in Kensington? Well, bones, of course - not saints' bones, but bones collected by Darwin on his travels, a voyage which brings a whiff of pilgrimage to the tale.

One could go on in this fairly trivial way, and have plenty of fun with the comparison.

'Revelation'

Darwinism has its bishops and its schisms. There are Darwin cartoon books for children, not dissimilar in tone to blandly uplifting Sunday School booklets.

More significant, though, is that Darwinism, like a religion, offers both a method and a message.

Andrew Marr and two orang-utans
Darwinism underpins today's acceptance of the importance of the web of life

It does not suggest prayerfulness or mantras, but it is grounded in the scientific method of observation, rigorous testing and peer group review.

It lays the groundwork for others to pick up and follow. Hardly unique to Darwin, of course, but its steady press-ahead of revelation makes the growth of Darwinists and Darwin-admirers inevitable.

As for its message, though you can believe in evolution while being sceptical about some aspects of ecological science, and while you can be both a creationist and worried about the current state of nature, Darwinism underpins today's acceptance of the importance of the web of life.

His work, for instance, on worms and coral reefs began to reveal the interconnectedness of apparently very distant life systems. And that paved the way for modern environmentalism.

With the Earth going through an unprecedented rate of species extinction now - the man-made so-called "sixth great extinction" - and with the threat from climate change, these are potent and urgent questions.

To deal with the consequences, we have to turn to scientific evidence, which will be brought to us by - yes - Darwinists.

Darwin showed not only that we originated in animal nature, but he also implied that if we damage nature too severely we might bring about our premature extinction.

There may have been no Darwinist Eden but there is certainly a Hell waiting for a species that makes the worst choices. And thus, back to my schoolboy metaphor.

A word of warning

So where is the danger?

I believe Darwin was right and that as science advances, he is proved more prescient, not less.

But religions are absolute. They bring their truth and then repel all boarders. They divide mankind into the saved and the ignorant damned.

In this story, there is no us and them. Darwinism, as I take it, is a creed of observation, fact, a deep modesty about conclusions and lifelong readiness to be proved wrong.

I don't say it offers everything that religion can. But I do say that, in this respect, it is better.

However we celebrate the old man, we mustn't let his work crust into creed or harden to dogma.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea, presented by Andrew Marr, is on Thursdays at 2100 GMT on BBC Two from 5 March.

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