World Evolution Day: Why is Charles Darwin's theory still so controversial?

Julian Gavaghan
Portrait of Charles Darwin and his seminal The Orgin of Species

This year's World Evolution Day marks the 153rd anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal book, On the Origin of Species.

His theory of evolution - that all living creatures, including humans, change over time due to the process of natural selection - is universally accepted by scientists. Yet controversy still shrouds this influential concept, despite it being widely supported by evidence such as fossils that prove creatures evolved - and the fact that bacteria rapidly evolve to deal with antibiotics.

Since the 1859 publication of the British naturalist’s account, which was written for the general public and not just academics, the theory’s chief challenger has been religion. At the heart of the debate is a dispute over evidence that humans evolved from apes millions of years ago.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy books all state that God created man in the image of himself. Furthermore, men and women were thought to have descended from Adam and Eve just 6,000 years ago.

The concept of evolution is most controversial in the United States, where 46 per cent of people believe that God created man in his present form. Christian fundamentalists there have been successful in getting schools in several states to teach creationism – or “intelligent design” - alongside evolution.
A few faith schools in Britain do the same.

The deniers’ victories over science have, in part, been achieved by falsely suggesting that not all professional scientists are certain about evolution. However, most Christians around the world are able to reconcile themselves with evolution – although some believe God is behind it. Neither the Catholic nor Anglican Churches now oppose the scientific account of evolution.

But the origin and age of man is not the only controversy sparked by Darwin. The so-called Darwinian view – that humanity is engaged in a universal struggle in which only the fittest survive – has been blamed for helping to foster racism. Indeed Darwin himself has been accused of being racist, in part because he described Aborigines as “savages” and suggested black people were less evolved. His views certainly inspired Social Darwinism, where the survival of the fittest concept is used to support ruthless economic and social policies.

Adolf Hitler, who was interested in the theory, went a step further and embarked on a full programme of “eugenics”. In the 1930s, the Nazis sought to sterilise all mentally disabled Germans to eliminate them from the gene pool. And, in a bid to ensure “racial purity”, Hitler’s henchmen went on to murder six million Jews, who they also viewed as inferior.

[Related article: Darwin's Lost Fossils Found In Desk Drawer]

Nowadays, new controversies have evolved from the eminent Victorian’s thoughts. There are fears that his principles may help scientists inadvertently 'evolve' a machine or synthetic life form capable of destroying us, like in The Terminator movie series.

The concept of artificial evolution – the idea of self-evolving and perfecting computer programs – has been around since the 1950s. But the possibility of creating artificial life has been boosted by a number of modern discoveries and innovations. For example, American billionaire and maverick biologist Craig Venter has been accused of playing God after he created synthetic DNA and implanted it in a cell.
His institute claims it paves the way for customised bugs that could revolutionise healthcare and fuel production. But technology watchdogs, including Human Genetics Alert, fear the research could be abused to create the ultimate biological weapon.

There is also the remote risk that a mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague.
Yet whatever happens in science, one man and his legacy will always loom large. And that man is Charles Darwin.