I can save you the effort of reading AN Wilson’s “exposé” on Darwin, which did the rounds over the weekend, characterising the famous scientist as a fraud, a thief, a liar, a racist and a rouser of nazism. Instead, head over to Netflix and watch the creationist made-for-TV movie A Matter of Faith, which covers many of the same arguments – and also includes a final scene in which a fictional evolutionary biologist, standing alone in his study, holds a rubber chicken in his hands and finds himself deliberating over the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. At least that was an original take on these tiresome accusations.
And so, here we are again, quietly drawing breath and smiling politely while the same familiar “discoveries” about Darwin arise once more. Was the blood spilled by the Nazis on Darwin’s hands? Did he steal his big idea from others? Is evolution by natural selection a great hoax? Are the “Darwinians” covering something up? Wilson appears to have hit upon a rich seam of cliches in his five years of research for his book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker.
In particular, it’s nice to see fossils come in for a kicking again. “Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in,” pants Wilson. If you too are panting at this notion, I implore you to visit a museum. Visit as many as you can. Better still, collect and study your own fossils – they are quite common. In the world’s museums and store-rooms, there are hundreds of millions of them and they all fit into broadly recognisable patterns of geological age and within the framework of what you or I would call evolution. Oh, you meant transitional fossils of whales specifically? Yep, it’s here. Oh, you meant birds? Here. Oh, you meant primates? Yep. Oh, you meant land fish? Here you go. Oh, you meant early human-like ancestors? There’s a link to more than a million scientific articles about the subject here.
“But where are the transitional fossils?” comes the familiar cry again. Knowing what I have learned about the intricacy and rarity of fossilisation, if anything would make me genuinely consider the presence of an all-seeing God it would be the discovery of an unbroken chain of 60,000 fossil skeletons, following the strata upwards, going smoothly from species A to species B. But that’s not the point, I guess, and Wilson should know it.
Scientists tend to fit into two camps on the issue of how to deal with this familiar kind of Darwin-baiting. In the modern age some, such as the American science communicator Bill Nye, choose to debate the anti-Darwinians on live TV. Others, such as Richard Dawkins, prefer to starve them of the oxygen they require by politely ignoring them – a kind of personal exercise in the non-validation of non-scientific ideas. So what is the approach we should take, as everyday lovers of science? I would suggest, and this may sound bold, we simply carry on regardless. Mostly.
The truth is that – and this is worth saying a million times over – most scientists probably don’t think about Darwin very much in their day-to-day studies and would consider themselves as much “Darwinist” as they would “round-Earthers” or “wifi-users”. This is, after all, the best working theory we have to understand the nature that we see around us. Also, I think we are all OK with entertaining the idea that, if a more scientifically accurate way of explaining the diversity of life on Earth comes along, Darwin would be ousted. It’s just that, based on current evidence, Darwin’s ideas still seem capable of explaining much, if not all, of what we see in nature. Hence, our kids learn about him in schools and popular science books that refute his influence are treated with understandable confusion, concern or disdain.
Sadly, many people will not find their way to this end-point, so suspicious are they of science, evolution and scientific ideas. For me, one of the most pressing problems in science is how we engage this lost audience, because they’re missing out on a wonderful experience – that of chasing real truths about some of the most beautiful and complex repeating patterns in nature, an apparent universal law that many people can and do balance regularly alongside their religious beliefs. For starters, their scepticism could come in quite handy.
So how can we connect with people who shout so loudly about this, science’s greatest apparent conspiracy? How do we draw them in and get them to re-engage with science? I’d love to know your thoughts about this. Contrary to the popular belief about those involved in science, I think we’re open to ideas. So let us know. You’ll find us ignorant about a great number of things. Just, unlike some, never wilfully.
• Jules Howard is a zoologist and the author of Sex on Earth and Death on Earth