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According to evolutionary biology, specifically the General Theory of Evolution, human beings are animals and have an evolutionary history by which we are genetically related to other species. When Charles Darwin first published his work, it made an enormous impact on society, many of them stemming from religiously-based reactions to the idea of humans as animals. Movements in opposition to the theory immediately sprang to being, and debate continues to this day. Thus, the concept of human evolution itself has a history. This article deals with the origins of the theory and its sociological impact.

The theory of evolution had early origins in the speculations and hypotheses of Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, postulated:

Would it be too bold to imagine that, in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!

Effects on societyEdit

The social effects of evolutionary thought have been considerable. As the scientific explanation of life's diversity has developed, it has often displaced alternative, sometimes very widely held, explanations. Because the theory of evolution includes an explanation of humanity's origins, it has had a profound impact on human societies. Some have vigorously opposed acceptance of the scientific explanation due to its perceived religious implications (e.g. its implied rejection of the special creation of humans described in the Bible). This has led to a vigorous conflict between creation and evolution in public education in the United States.

Evolution and ethicsEdit

The theory of evolution by natural selection has also been adopted as a foundation for various ethical and social systems, such as social Darwinism, an idea popular in the 19th century which holds that "the survival of the fittest" explains and justifies differences in wealth and success among societies and people. A similar interpretation was one created by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, known as eugenics, which claimed that human civilization was subverting natural selection by allowing the "less fit" to survive and "out-breed" the "more fit." Later advocates of this theory would suggest radical and often coercive social measures to attempt to "correct" this imbalance. Stephen Jay Gould and others have argued that social Darwinism is based on misconceptions of evolutionary theory, and many ethicists regard it as a case of the is-ought problem. After the atrocities of the Holocaust became linked with eugenics, it greatly fell out of favor with public and scientific opinion (though it was never universally accepted by either).

Neo-creationist polemics single out "Darwinism" as the cause of many of modern society's ills. In the controversial book From Darwin to Hitler by Richard Weikart [1], Weikart claims that Darwinism's impact on ethics and morality played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.

Research for Weikart's book was funded by the Discovery Institute, which has been very active in promoting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classrooms, and whose "Wedge document" and former mission statement expand on the theme: "The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective standards binding on all cultures, claiming that environment dictates our moral beliefs." ... "materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth."

The notion that humans share ancestors with other animals has also affected how some people view the relationship between humans and other species. Many proponents of animal rights hold that if animals and humans are of the same nature, then rights cannot be distinct to humans.

Evolution and religionEdit

See also: History of evolutionary thought.

Before Darwin's argument and presentation of the evidence for evolution, Western religions generally discounted or condemned any claims that diversity of life is the result of an evolutionary process, as did most scientists in the English scientific establishment. However, evolution was accepted by some religious groups such as the Unitarian church and the liberal Anglican theologians who went on to publish Essays and Reviews. as well as by many scientists in France and Scotland and some in England, notably Robert Edmund Grant. Literal or authoritative interpretations of Scripture hold that a supreme being directly created humans and other animals as separate "Created kinds", which to some means species. This view is commonly referred to as creationism. In the West, the United States of America is the only country where creationist ideas are given serious consideration. From the 1920s to the present in the US, there has been a strong religious backlash to the teaching of evolution theory, particularly by conservative evangelicals. They have expressed concerns about the effects of the teaching of evolution on society and their faith (see Creation-evolution controversy).

In response to the wide scientific acceptance of the theory of evolution, many religions have formally or informally synthesized the scientific and religious viewpoints. Several important 20th century scientists (Fisher, Dobzhansky) whose work confirmed Darwin's theory, were also Christians who saw no incompatibility between their experimental and theoretical confirmations of evolution and their faith. Some religions have adopted a theistic evolution viewpoint, where God provides a divine spark that ignited the process of evolution and (or), where God has guided evolution in one way or another. (See also Allegorical interpretations of Genesis)

Evolution and the Roman Catholic ChurchEdit

Main article: Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church, beginning in 1950 with Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, took up a neutral position with regard to evolution. "The Church does not forbid that...research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter." [2].

In an October 22, 1996, address to the Pontifical Academy of Science, Pope John Paul II updated the Church's position, recognizing that Evolution is "more than a hypothesis" - "In his encyclical Humani Generis, my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation... Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines." [3].

Evolutionary theory and the political leftEdit

Main article: Evolutionary theory and the political left

Some on political left, especially Marxists and communists have been critical of aspects of the theory evolution by natural selection (Darwinism). Some of this opposition appears for ideological reasons; the concepts of "survival of the fittest", and "nature red in tooth and claw" appear not to fit with economic or social ideals. Conversely, the advancement inherent in Lamarckism did. This most notably manifested itself in Lysenkoism in the USSR, which caused agricultural problems.

The majority of those on the left do not oppose Darwinism, but some have criticized interpretations of evolutionary theory that, in their view, overemphasize the role of competition and ignore elements of co-operation in nature such as symbiosis. For example, some on the left such as Peter Singer in A Darwinian Left have embraced Darwinism but reach different political and economic lessons than more conservative observers.

See alsoEdit

External LinksEdit

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