Confessions of a “gentle Darwinian”
I was raised a Unitarian, among the “gentle Darwinians” Peter Quinn discusses in his excellent essay (available from the home page to subscribers).
Darwin, as well as Emerson and Schweitzer, were our triumvirate (I almost called them our Trinity, too ironic). Emerson was our prophet, the one who saw the common thread of truth in all religions. Schweitzer was our saint. And Darwin was our apologist, the one who helped us prove that the machinations of God, as many had suspected, were not set down exactly accurately in the Old Testament.
That Darwin’s theory–and to some extent Darwin himself–helped promote the eugenics movement was something no one talked about in our old fellowship–and perhaps few even knew about. Nonetheless, there was much discussion about overpopulation during the 1960s–something my mother is still concerned with today in light of the stresses she contends that global warming will place on the world’s population.
And there were discussions about “responsible reproduction,” which meant that parents who knowingly carried certain genetic predispositions to disease had the moral obligation not to reproduce. It was the kindest thing to do, it was stressed, given that the child would suffer.
Abortion, not legal then, was not advocated (last time I visited, our fellowship was divided on this issue). Nor was mistreatment or extermination of the handicapped. There were nearly as many disaffected Jews as Christians who had ended up in our fellowship. The Holocaust was fresh in their memories.
So as I read Quinn’s essay, I could not help formulating a Unitarian response to it, and it would go something like this:
Darwin uncovered something true about the way the God works, and it is as miraculous, awe-inspiring and ingenious as anything in the Bible. That Darwin may have wanted to apply his ideas to immoralities like eugenics does not detract from his discoveries any more than St. Jerome’s bad temper detracts from the Herculean work he did to translate the Bible. The morality part is up to religion, and each man’s conscience must wrestle with it.
Most of all the “gentle Darwinians” I know would have thanked Peter Quinn heartily for bringing this side of Darwin to their attention.
I made a copy of the essay to take to my mother on our next visit. And I know our conversation will be a lively one!