For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives?

London, UK - What has Charles Darwin done for you? Do you feel better or worse for the news that a gibbon is your close cousin? Do you even believe it, deep down? Some folk certainly don’t.

At the Creation Museum in Kentucky you can view a nonDarwinian 6,000-year history of the world from the Garden of Eden until now. About 50% of Americans believe this is exactly how it happened.

To them, Darwin – with his mad ideas about millions of years of slow evolutionary change – was a prophet of contemporary, secular delusions, perhaps even a foreshadower of the end-time when God will return in judgment.

“Darwinism,” says Dr David Menton of Answers in Genesis, which built the Creation Museum, “is what you have once you have denied the existence of God.”

We do things differently here. In Westminster Abbey, parties of schoolchildren walk over the marble slab on which is inscribed simply, “Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882”. There’s also a black plaque depicting a mightily bearded Darwin in old age. The capacious tent of Anglicanism seems to be able to do what American fundamentalism cannot: embrace the man who, in Richard Dawkins’s words, made it “intellectually respectable to be an atheist”.

This is, as even the most hermetic among us must be aware, Darwin’s year. It is the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the book that showed humans were nothing special. We were descended not just from monkeys but also, ultimately, from the same ancestor as bacteria, flowers and slugs.

It was and is, for many, a grim vision. But in his final paragraph Darwin tried to save us from despair.

He wrote: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few new 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.”

Grandeur or omen of the end-times? Darwin divided and still divides the western world. It’s not just a division between scientists and fundamentalists. Science itself is divided. To say nothing of the rest of us, who may accept Darwin in theory but find it hard to look in a mirror and see the descendant of a piece of slime.

The first point to make about On the Origin of Species is that it is perhaps the most accessible great work of science ever written. “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!” exclaimed TH Hux-ley, the biologist and later prime booster of Darwinism, when he finished the book.

All Darwin said was that random mutations occurred in organisms. A small percentage would be beneficial and help an individual to breed more successfully. Over the unimaginable eons of deep time, this process would modify species and create new ones. Finally, human brains were formed, one of which defined and detected grandeur in the blind workings of a simple and, to the materialist imagination, inevitable mechanism.

Colin Blakemore, our most celebrated neurobiologist, believes Darwinism will ultimately lead us to a scientifically verified understanding of human nature and the final refutation of all previous mythologies. “It could, in principle, substitute for all other belief systems about human nature, about what’s special about people,” he says. “Obviously, what I’m getting at is religion. I really do believe if we can produce a full Darwin-based description of humanity, then belief in other explanations will disappear.”

Here’s some evidence in his favour. At the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Big Idea exhibition I meet Michelle Wilkinson, a 21-year-old law student. Brought up a Catholic, she has begun to lapse, having abandoned church.

“Does this,” I wave at the exhibits of Darwin’s letters, dead birds, an enormous live frog and sundry memorabilia of that momentous life, “make you doubt even more?”

“Yes,” she says wistfully and maybe a bit sadly. Yet, amid all this scientific triumphalism and religious doubt, what are we to make of the “big idea” that has become the dominant scientific orthodoxy of our time? What’s so special about this idea as opposed to all the others with which we are daily bombarded? FOR all the triumphs of science and technology, from Copernicus through Galileo and Newton to the industrial revolution, life remained an unopenable black box until 1859. How could the awe-inspiring complexity of life emerge from the dumb dance of matter? The only answer appeared to be God. However, Darwin’s mechanism showed how, through the operations of the deep time discovered by Victorian geologists, complexity could emerge.

There were gaping holes in his argument. He knew nothing of genes and he had not shown how perfection emerges. It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

And, finally, although Darwin showed micro-evolution – most famously in the variations of the forms of the beaks of Galapagos finches – his leap to the conclusion that this proved macro-evolution (species transforming into other species) was a leap of faith. For some, nothing that has happened since has answered these objections – and now there are fresh ones.

In his new book, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, James Le Fanu, a medical doctor and journalist, insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is “screwed”, he says gruffly.

Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.

“I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,” says Le Fanu, “and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps.”

Darwinism’s promise of an ultimate simplicity seemed to be reinforced by the identification in 1953 of DNA as the molecule that transmits genetic information. It was simply a double helix that passed on information as you might transfer files between computers. But the simplicity turned out to be an illusion. Genes are not neat atomic units; they are scattered fragments that behave and interact in wildly differing ways in different organisms.

Even among Darwinists, this unexpected complexity has produced confusion and rancour, not least in the deep disagreements between Dawkins and the late American evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. “Richard’s view,” explains Steven Rose, a biology and neurobiology professor, “is genes are the single unit of selection and the organism is the passive vehicle within which these replicators work. Stephen’s was a more pluralist view that evolution happened at many different levels.”

The division remains, deep and unresolved. And beyond that, there are even some scientists who think Darwinism is, in effect, a sideshow. In their book Form and Transformation, Brian Goodwin, a developmental biologist, and Gerry Webster, a philosopher, argue that it is in the mathematics of complex systems that we shall find the real solution to the problem of life. The theory of evolution provides “only limited insight”; what matters is the dance of possible forms within nature.

Nevertheless, Darwinism remains contemporary science’s golden vision, the framework of biology and the emblem of the power of science to demonstrate the ultimate workings of the material world, ourselves included. So what does this mean outside the debates of scientists?

Darwin himself realised that it meant a great deal. The increasingly agnostic, if not outright atheist, conclusions that he began to draw from his work were a wedge driven between himself and his beloved but pious wife Emma.

On the Origin of Species was published 17 years after he had finalised his theory. Many reasons are given for this delay, but the big one was his awareness of its sensational content for scientists and nonscientists alike – Emma especially. When he told his friends of his findings, he said, “It was like confessing to a murder.” This was not a morally, ethically or religiously neutral idea; it was a new vision of man’s place in the world.

“Man, with all his noble qualities, still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins,” he wrote in The Descent of Man, 12 years after On the Origin.

Implicit in this is the statement: we are not the children of God, the noble stewards of creation; we are deeply embedded in the blind workings of nature, cousins to the virus and the vegetable. “If that is true, then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like,” says David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement.

As a result of beliefs such as Rosevear’s, Darwin has been implicated in all sorts of crimes. William Jen-nings Bryan, an American presidential candidate – and the key protagonist in the 1925 Scopes trial in which a teacher in Tennessee was prosecuted for teaching Darwinism – thought the German mind had been rotted by evolutionary theory and this led to the first world war.

Le Fanu sees Darwin as directly implicated in a contemporary cultural malaise: “He changed the world fundamentally. Along with those now fallen idols Marx and Freud, he accounts for the secularisation of western society. Darwinism is the foundational theory of all atheistic, scientific and materialist doctrines and of the notion that everything is ultimately explicable and that there is nothing special about it – the self-denigration and self-hatred, the great ‘nothing but’ story.”

For John Gray, the philosopher, this all points to a fundamental oddity of the conflicts and anxieties generated by Darwin. He says: “Darwinism appeared in the context of a monotheistic religion that assumed a categorical distinction between humans and other animals. In any religion that didn’t assume that, it wouldn’t have produced these unending conflicts.”

If Darwin had been Japanese, Chinese or Indian, then his primary insight – our deep connection to nature – would have been seen as unremarkable, if not self-evident. But in the Judaeo-Christian or Muslim worlds, in which man is seen as the God-elected pinnacle of creation, it is dynamite. This is why, as Darwin so clearly saw, his idea represents a fundamental moral challenge to our western world-view.

At many levels we have failed this challenge. Almost from its first appearance, the Darwinian idea has been used to justify appalling behav-iour. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, seized on “survival of the fittest” as scientific evidence that there was a moral injunction for the fit to defeat the unfit. From this, many thinkers drew the idea that we could help evolution along by eliminating or allowing the death of “inferior” races or individuals.

This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution. Any hopes that we have escaped that dreadful phase are vain. How many times did the masters of turbo-capitalism of the past 20 years plead evolution and survival of the fittest as the justification for their cult of greed and cultural destruction? THE question nobody can really answer is: outside science, what difference did Darwin make? It is reasonable to answer: none whatsoever. Religion is as powerful a force in the world as it ever was, perhaps more powerful. Our rape of nature, our one true home, has accelerated. In the 20th century, technology extended our capacity for slaughter beyond imagination. Man still thinks he can be the master of nature, yet the one thing Darwinism shows more clearly than anything else is that we are its servants.

Darwinism remains only a small part of the popular imagination. “Evolution” and “survival of the fittest” are embedded in the language, but they pale into insignificance next to the legacy of Freud – now no longer regarded as a scientist at all – whose ideas persist in popular uses of words such as “anal”, “ego” and “sublimation”. Yet Freud is seen to be about sex and relationships; Darwin is all about bigger but remoter things. His place in teenspeak, the argot of all ages, is minimal.

Back at the Natural History Museum I meet Pablo Viejo, who is working on a PhD on the application of evolutionary theory to the growth of cities. He follows the neo-Darwin-ian orthodoxy that because it is all so simple and so true, it must be applicable to every aspect of life. And here is Adrian Pearson, a film-maker, with his 13-year-old son Luke. They came because “it is such an amazing story”. And so it is. What, exactly, it means is another matter.