Friday, October 09, 2009

Picking and choosing

I watched "Darwin's Darkest Hour" the other night, a two-hour Nova program on PBS. Good, but not great, mainly because it compresses so much of Darwin's life into such a short interval of time, centering around Darwin receiving Wallace's preemptory paper on natural selection in 1858. The story basically unfolds as a long conversation (with flashbacks) between Darwin and his wife Emma. Central to Darwin's "darkest hour" are the deaths of two children, beloved ten-year-old Annie in 1851, and the infant Charles in 1858.

Annie died of what is presumed to have been tuberculosis. Baby Charles of scarlet fever. Both children would almost certainly have lived today. It was, of course, the very same methodology that Darwin used to arrive at his theory of evolution by natural selection that led to the medical advances that would have let his children live. No doubt Emma earnestly prayed for the childrens' recovery.

It was Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton who first compiled data to show that prayer was inefficacious in effecting cures or prolonging life ("Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer," 1872). To this day, not a shred of non-anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of prayer has emerged. Meanwhile, medical science has proceeded by leaps and bounds.

And so it is that the creationists pick and chose their science. They are quick to embrace modern medicine and technology, even though those advances in human knowledge derive from the same methodological apparatus as does our knowledge of the age of the Earth, evolution by common descent, and natural selection.

Darwin consistently followed his methodology wherever it led him, even into a robust agnosticism. Emma remained true to her Christian beliefs. She also remained true to her love for Charles, even as she lamented that his agnosticism might mean their separation in eternity. As the NOVA program indicated, she supported him unflinchingly, even after his death.

This new program is not a patch on the superb seven-part BBC series of 1978, The Voyage of Charles Darwin. Magnificent! Why the BBC has not issued the series on DVD, I don't know. Is it available anywhere on the internet?