It happened today - November 24, 2015

On this day in history men descended from monkeys. Well, not exactly. But Nov. 24 is the day on which in 1859 Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. And life was never the same again.

Darwin’s insight about the selection of advantageous mutations as the driving force in changing patterns of life on earth was a classic, profound and yet “simple” in the sense that, although it was very hard to think of, it was incredibly obvious once explained and incredibly powerful.

It seemed to explain everything at once. And I do mean everything. It was recently voted the most important academic book of all time in an elaborate exercise in which publishers submitted titles to an academic panel that chose 20 to be voted on by the public. It wasn’t a “scientific” exercise but it was a carefully thought-out one and I happen to think the result was correct. Darwin didn’t just change biology, he changed philosophy and metaphysics and powerfully challenged religion.

Important is not, of course, a synonym for good. Because evolution seemed to explain everything about humans by reference to purely material random causes, it also seemed to unthrone God and reduce man to a beast, while reducing beasts to random products of a heartless universe rather than “creatures,” that is, products of a creator.

I do not think this interpretation is correct. I have met people who insist that we are just bags of chemicals whose intellectual processes are just the inexorable product of electrochemical reactions driven by the laws of physics and chemistry. Our emotions, our thoughts, all are adaptive mechanisms to help us propagate successful descendants. Our ideals are illusions, free will absurd, morality and religion just tricks to make us cooperate for the benefit of our unthinking, soulless genes.

The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that if true it’s false or at least unreliable. Our belief in evolution and materialism is not itself the product of genuine intellectual processes but just the random cast-offs of those inexorable processes that result when sodium meets chlorine and energy is released and so forth. If true, materialism it is true by accident and unverifiable. We have no independent reliable standard of rationality, no way to test our conclusions against truth, just a bunch of chemical reactions burbling away and hurling “thoughts” at us.

Or non-us. For in this way of seeing the world, we don’t exist. Our sense of self is just one more trick of the light particles. We do not decide, we do not choose, we simply react in extremely complex conditioned ways that, for some inexplicable reason, include the illusion of self-awareness.

It must be an illusion in the materialist vision because the chemicals are doing the “thinking” according to unchanging mechanical scientific laws. At no point can “we” step into the chain of reasoning, or out of it, and make a decision. There are no forks in the mental road, only equations with inevitable solutions. If we knew the initial position and velocity of every particle, we could predict everything including all your thoughts. Or, again, non-thoughts, because thought, as a deliberate self-controlling process of sifting truth from error, has no place in this vision. It cannot get in anywhere. There are no cracks.

In that sense, as C.S. Lewis once put it, arguing with a materialist is absurd because you are arguing with a man who insists he’s not there, and passionately defends as truths mental patterns his own theory insists are just useful conditioned reflexes. That includes Darwin, who downplayed his own commitment to such metaphysics for public relations purposes but accepted them privately and who is, ironically, buried in Westminster Abbey.

To say all this is not to dispute evolution in the narrow sense. I believe it is the principal mechanism driving the propagation and differentiation of life on Earth though I grant that there are some compelling critiques of its details, especially the question how such a complex mechanism as vision could “evolve” when the multiple independent steps necessary to complete an act of seeing are useless except in sequence which makes it very hard to grasp why they would have been selected as advantageous one by one. But I do not think that evolution is incompatible with the notion of a Creator directly concerned with his creatures on whom He has bestowed free will.

Many people disagree with me. And in doing so, in convincing many people that they are merely beasts, devoid of rationality, souls or dignity, they have helped to make them act that way. Thus Darwin’s impact was greater than that of any other abstract thinker, and helped shape the ghastly 20th century. But not in a good way.

In the face of evil, true evil, including the evils of Naziism and Bolshevism, we recoil in horror, knowing that our reaction is not just a conditioned reflex designed to help our DNA spawn mindlessly and pointlessly. Darwin was right about many things, but quite wrong about the biggest one.

We are not beasts. Indeed, we must either rise above monkeys or descend far below them. For when we act like brutes we sink below our true nature, which is not random products of clashing chemicals whose noblest aspirations are strange illusions. Westminster Abbey still stands above Darwin’s bones. And so it should, because we are here and we must choose.