Wednesday, 2 September, 2009
Quadrant Online

September 2009

Volume LIII Number 9

Quadrant magazine is the leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate published in Australia.

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Views of Darwin

James Franklin

Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia, by Tom Frame; UNSW Press, 2009, $39.95.

As HMS Beagle approached Sydney in January 1836, four years out from England, the young Charles Darwin was looking forward to a break in a civilised country. "We all on board," he wrote, "are looking forward to Sydney, as to a little England: it really will be very interesting to see the colony which must be the Empress of the South." The reality was disappointing. Sydney in the middle of a drought-stricken summer was not a little England. The servant girls were vile-mouthed. The Aborigines "appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in the scale of civilization than the Fuegians". There were no kangaroos to see.

Still, the strangeness of what wildlife did come out on view gave Darwin a few things to think about. "An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, 'Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.'" Yet the similarities in the intelligence of the design were as striking as the differences. Observing how lion ants that resembled those in Europe caught their prey, Darwin wrote, "Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe."

If Darwin was in two minds about Australia, Australia has returned the favour. Tom Frame's wide-ranging and excellent book is a one-stop shop on evolution from an Australian perspective. It covers the basics of Darwinian theory, old and new, Darwin's visit to Australia, the reception of Darwin's theory in Australia, and modern controversies here and elsewhere on creationism, intelligent design, and the relation of evolutionary theory to the big questions of religion and philosophy.

Frame's background as an Anglican bishop and an author of solidly-researched books on a wide range of topics (such as the sinking of HMAS Sydney) gives him a certain distance from the topic, which he uses to good advantage to examine sceptically some received ideas. The idea that Darwin's theory was embraced by scientists while fought tooth and nail by religious reactionaries, especially in remote and primitive regions like Australia, proves to be far from the truth. As Frame shows, in its early decades evolution proved a hit with the general informed public, including in Australia, while being strongly criticised by the scientists closest to the field, palaeontologists and taxonomists.

Religious reaction was equally patchy. While biblical literalists were of course hostile, other religious leaders saw a number of marketing opportunities in evolution's story of development towards higher forms. Bishop Alfred Barry of Sydney claimed in the 1880s that the Apostles' Creed became the statement of Christian belief "by natural selection", while thousands flocked in 1890 to hear the lectures of the Scottish champion of "evolutionary Christianity", Henry Drummond. And back home the Church of England buried Darwin in Westminster Abbey, undoubtedly a handsome gesture, all things considered.

Frame is again even-handed and subtle in dealing with recent controversies over creationism and intelligent design. He is well aware that the campaign to smear intelligent design theory as "creationism in disguise" is just militant atheist propaganda. "Creation science" is an implausible attempt to give scientific colour to fundamentalist interpretations of scripture, whereas Intelligent Design theorists have some scientifically serious questions about the possibility of biological complexity evolving.

Frame's account of creationism reveals the remarkable degree to which the more scientific, or pseudo-scientific, end of creation science has been an Australian operation. Probably the highest-profile showcase of "young-earth creationism" (the theory that the world was created only 6000 years ago) is the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which is run by the "Answers in Genesis" organisation headed by former Australian science teacher Ken Ham. The remarkable Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal (renamed Journal of Creation), notable for its good approximation of the look and feel of a scientific journal, came from Brisbane.

Frame tells the story of the falling out between Ham and his former Australian allies. It involves allegations of witchcraft and necrophilia, dirty tricks over the lucrative subscription list of Creation magazine, an investigation by former New South Wales Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Clarrie Briese (of Lionel Murphy fame), and acrimonious litigation ongoing in the Supreme Court of Queensland. The details, if possibly not strictly relevant to the great issues of the origin and meaning of life, certainly make a good yarn.

There have been Australian contributions to somewhat more respectable parts of evolutionary controversy. One was Michael Denton's 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which inspired later Intelligent Design theorists to ask some pointed questions about whether the kind of complexity that involves interconnected machine-like systems of working parts could have evolved by a Darwinian random search process - especially in the time available, which is traditionally termed "the vast eons of geological time" but is in fact only four billion years. Another is Ted Steele's controversial revival of a version of Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. A third is David Stove's book Darwinian Fairytales (1995), a philosopher's attack on the large-scale logical structure of Darwinism, concentrating on its magical ability to "explain" whatever adaptations are observed and to attribute human characteristics to causes that acted long ago in an unobservable "Cave Man" phase of human existence. When it comes to evolution, Australia has lived up to its reputation as a land of knockers.

Frame concludes with a "personal postscript" on where he thinks "humanity's view of itself" stands in the light of what we know about the evolution of life and the human species. He points out that theories of biblical infallibility or inerrancy, of the kind that drive creationism, are not themselves biblical, and there is no logical problem for Christians in accepting evolution. On the other hand, evolutionary theory does undermine classical design arguments for the existence of God, resulting in a weakening of those moderate Protestant versions of Christianity which had relied heavily on that argument. Frame says that still leaves traditional questions like "Why is there something rather than nothing?" untouched by evolution-inspired doubts, while materialistic atheism in the style of Dawkins is implausible in the light of what we know about the universe and humanity. A focus on the person of Jesus, Frame believes, gives a perspective more in tune with all we know.

James Franklin's recent book What Science Knows was reviewed in the July-August issue.