Tolerance for beliefs of others tests faith in our political future

Samuel Damren

This is the fourth commentary in a series on science, religion, and politics.

As a prelude, the third commentary described academic, religious, and political views on evolution existing prior to the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal work, “The Origin of Species” in 1859.

“The Origin of Species” is a model for the presentation of an intricate, lengthy but dramatic synthesis of fact and theory.  

Darwin begins his introduction on a personal note and anticipation: “When on board H. M. S. Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America and in the geographical relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.”

“These facts … seemed to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by … philosophers.”

When a student at Cambridge in 1831, Darwin was selected to serve as naturalist on a two-year British naval scientific expedition to South America and then across the Pacific to Australia. Instead, the Voyage of the Beagle lasted for five years and included a 500-mile trek through Brazil.

The foundation of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection rested on the selection of minor variations that over long periods of time favored a species in the struggle for survival in the natural and competitive environment: survival of the fittest.  

Darwin could not travel back in time to view this process as it occurred; but what time travel could not provide, was provided for Darwin to examine through distance and the isolation of “organic beings” in separate and distinct environments.

On his “return home,” Darwin shares with the reader, that “it occurred to me, that something might be made out on the question” of the origin of species from the facts “accumulated” on the expedition. Thus, began 20 years of dedicated research.

After recounting a thumbnail history of prior work as context, Darwin states his thesis in question form in “The Origin of Species,” Chapter IV: “Can it be, then …that variations useful to each being in the great and complex battle of life … [provide] individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others [with] the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind?”  

In following chapters, Darwin first discusses countervailing theories in detail, demonstrating his scholarship, before presenting the empirical evidence and logical arguments supporting his new and novel position that life as it exists today evolved from a few simple forms, and not through Special Creation.

In the final chapter, Darwin thanks readers for their attention in considering his work to that point and then begins his final argument which he identifies as a “recapitulation” of “the leading facts and inferences.”

He ends with a flourish “as a consequence of Natural Selection, entailing …  the Extinction of less-improved forms [through] that war of nature … the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life … that from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Seasoned advocates will recognize that through this poetic lilt, Darwin was “pulling the tooth” of anticipated theological opposition to his position. He did not have as much to worry about as he might have expected.  

There was fervent opposition from theologians that strictly adhered to Scripture; but there were also many theologians who sought to accommodate his reasoned, exhaustive, and obviously well intended work. In their view, Darwin was not arguing that the Creator had no role in the Creation of life; only that the mechanism by which He worked was different than that set forth in Scripture.

Scientists of the time were not as taken by his argument as Darwin might have hoped.  

They were persuaded by his explanation of Natural Selection as a mechanism to sort advantageous from disadvantageous variations in species. However, his failure to identify a separate mechanism that explained how variations in species occur in the first place and continue thereafter left the overall theory incomplete.  

This fault would be remedied 100 years later through the discovery of the double helix of DNA and the variations attendant to recombination. The technology underlying this scientific discovery did not exist until the 1940s.

Dr. Francis Collins, the longest serving presidentially appointed director at NIH and the “field marshal” of the international Human Genome Project in 2000, marvels at Darwin’s ability to so long ago discern the process of Natural Selection without the benefit of understanding the mechanism of DNA.

He also notes there remain some scientific gaps in the overall theory of Natural Selection.  

Collins, a practicing Christian and the author of “The Language of God,” contends that science should not discount a role for the divine in filling these gaps. He is not dogmatic about this possibility. Collins accepts the fact that future scientific findings alone may supply the answers. However, if that occurs, he notes it will not disturb the foundations of his faith.

From Collins’ perspective, science and religion can both accommodate and complement one another.  

Just as Darwin was “struck with certain facts” upon his return from the Voyage of the Beagle, it is tempting to analogize the process of Natural Selection occurring at the individual level to humankind’s group behavior organized through belief systems.

From this perspective, perhaps “something might be made out on the” different ways religions, religious denominations and sects view the beliefs of others that conflict with their own.

For example, does a particular religion, religious denomination or sect accept that truths held by others who do not share their beliefs are nonetheless entitled to a respect equivalent to the respect they demand for their beliefs?

Alternatively, does a particular faith contend there is only “One True Faith” and that the beliefs of others are not entitled to respect, and should either be banned or eliminated by other means?

Evaluating the prevalence of these differing perspectives might gauge humankind’s political evolution to date.


Samuel Damren is an attorney and author in Ann Arbor.