Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Since that date scientists have expanded the theory by incorporating the new science of genetics. Cosmologists have contributed a history of the universe that began in the big bang about 13 billion years ago and biologists have estimated the emergence of the first living things (microbia) about 3.5 billion years. Evidence of early humanity, close to a mere 300 thousand years, completed the picture of cosmic and human time. This composite narrative of origins of life on earth has become the narrative in modern times.
The controversy in England about the new theory of evolution was seen as a victory of scientific rationalism over against the feeble attempts to cling to the biblical account of creation as an explanation of the origin of all things. In the process, Christian belief for many was mortally damaged since central texts were found to be mythical and hence untrustworthy. The word "mythical" was taken to refer to the unreal, the pretend. By mistaking the biblical creation stories as scientific accounts and finding that they did not agree with the theory of evolution, the stories lost their authority. In one stroke, their meaning, which was concerned with the nature of humanity and its relationship with God, was lost. We lost the legends that were pivotal to our civilization. The anthropology that replaced them was a shallow synthesis of Enlightenment thought that placed humanity as its own creation. This set the stage for the turn to the self and the divinisation of humanity that eventually resulted in the bloodiest century ever, the twentieth.
Doubt about the veracity of biblical texts could have been ameliorated if English scholars were not so blind to German biblical research. Julian Wellhausen published in 1878 his source theory of Old Testament texts that discovered the hands of different writers separated in time and in orientation that was later redacted into a single narrative. This undercut the idea that biblical texts were, in some way, obtained directly from the mouth of God.
The source hypothesis demonstrated that biblical texts were cultural products that displayed their sources in time, place and authorship. Such analysis has come to be known as the historical critical method that has now explored both the Old and New Testaments. For example, we now recognise that Paul did not write all the letters that have been attributed to him, that the gospel writers were situated in different cultural contexts that effected their theological orientation. The men who sifted biblical texts to be either in or out of the canon must have realised this, for why would they have included four accounts of the life and death of Jesus?
The tragedy of our time is not that natural science has affirmed a cosmic timeline based on evidence, it is that the biblical accounts of creation were judged on the grounds of natural science, found wanting, and dismissed. During the Darwinian controversy, it was assumed that the theory of evolution and the biblical accounts of creation were similar causal accounts of the origin of all things. It is on that basis that the biblical narratives were dismissed, even though its authors belonged to a prescientific culture whose view of the world was thoroughly theological. Biblical criticism demonstrates that these narratives were more like legends than scientific hypotheses and that their concern was not physics but metaphysics; the unseen existential estate of humanity.
The second tragedy of our time is the establishment of "religion" as a private affair that involves individual "belief". This meant that the great texts of Scripture that had guided our civilization for over two thousand years were removed from the public square and placed firmly in the private domain. While we insist that the texts of Shakespeare are integral to the teaching of English, biblical texts have been removed from the curriculum because they are deemed only suitable for those of us who are "religious". When we ignore the humanities, and I include the study of theology, biblical texts and church history, we ignore the texts that have traditionally taught us what it means to be human.
This ignorance set the stage for a naïve trust in scientism: the belief that all we need is a scientific account of origins. However, such trust has led us down some very dangerous paths. For example, at the end of the nineteenth century our understanding of the human predicament was influenced by social Darwinism. This was used to affirm the class system and recommend the practice of negative eugenics through aggressive government intervention. Francis Galton (1822-1911), a half cousin of Charles Darwin and an eminent scientist in the field of statistics, taught that there existed a gradation of genetic worth in society, from the aristocracy, being the highest and the destitute the lowest. He reasoned that given the working of evolution those with least genetic worth would eventually be eliminated by natural selection. However, this did not appear to be the case since the lower classes breed more prolifically than the upper. In order to correct this tendency, he recommended the sterilisation of those with zero genetic worth. He theorised that this would produce "a society of superior Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic achievers". He coined the word "eugenics" to describe this procedure.
The aim of The Eugenics Education Society (established in 1907) was to breed out the feebleminded. Garry Dorrien, in his Social Democracy in the Making gives a list of prominent members of the British public who supported the work of this society. The list is breathtaking and includes Karl Pearson, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, William Beverage, Havelock Ellis and John Maynard Keynes. Given such influential support we may ask why the work of the society did not go ahead. It did not because the Labour Party joined the Catholic Church and Christian socialists in opposing sterilization laws. The Church held the biblical creation narratives to be definitive of humanity in that all were created in the image of God. The New Testament has strong themes that emphasise not the worthlessness of the poor and indigent, but their value. This did not stop the eugenics movement from growing throughout the 1920s but it did stop any legislation to act. Meanwhile a similar movement appeared in Germany and was the basis for the final solution of National Socialism. The movement in America was concerned with the control of race and many states passed ordinances prohibiting miscegenation between blacks and whites.
The discovery of the death camps in Germany after the end of WWII, the logical extension of negative eugenics, killed the movement off. The urge to "improve" a society by the means of eugenics is, of course not over, as the activity in Xinjiang demonstrates.
This history stands as a warning against pure scientism and the neglect of ancient traditions that define the human. In 19C Britain there was enthusiasm for improvements in agriculture and industry. Eugenics promised improvement in society by increasing the genetic worth of the population. This is now seen to be bad science produced by those at the top of the class system. However, we continue to look to science and technology to fix things without regard for the essentially human.
I note that the spirit that prioritises the technical over the spiritual is alive and well in that the Australian Federal government is due to pass legislation that will discourage the study of the arts in tertiary education and give preference to those subjects that promise job ready graduates with degrees in various technologies. Will we ever learn!