Darwin and the chicken’s egg

What came first, the chicken or the egg? I’m thrilled to report that after extensive navel contemplation, this quintessential human conundrum has been laid to rest. The answer, which is revealed here, has been right in front of us for decades.

What got me pondering such erudite matters, amid bouts of staring at the wall (as writers are wont to do, louts and layabouts, the lot of us), was the birthday of one Charles Darwin, who breathed his first on February 12 two centuries ago.

What I love about this guy is that his idea was so simple, so obvious, yet so earth-shattering. His idea of natural selection has been around for 150 years now: that every species is part of one vast and impressive family tree that goes all the way back to a common ancestor, something a bit like algae, the notion that species are sculpted by their natural environment and the ones most able to adapt to their world will pass on their successful traits to their offspring and those that aren’t able to adapt will die out.

By all accounts this notion is as contentious now as it was when he launched On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

You needed only to tune in to radio talkshows during the past week, many of which had ”evolution/Darwin” pencilled into their line-ups, to get an idea of how offensive some still find it. Within minutes the studio phone lines were as congested as a colon running low on fibre.

Darwin’s thinking forced a seismic shift in the modern world. It tore a giant crack in another idea about our origins that had already had a few thousand years to build up a head of steam. Darwin showed how natural forces explain the origins of life. This was not a world that needed a divine sculptor. It is ironic then that this should come from a man who trained for the ministry before becoming a naturalist.

The fact that Darwin sat on his idea for two decades before publishing suggests just how offensive he knew the idea would be. Yet the first print run of On the Origin of Species sold out in a day, showing how ready Western society was for it.

Not only did the book give a logical and evidence-based explanation for how the natural world works, but in so doing it also inadvertently challenged God’s authorised biography, as laid out in the book of Genesis.

If life on earth wasn’t really spoken into existence by the word of Yahweh during a six-day orgy of creation, then any claim that it was a literal, historic account of things was open to question. And if that one chapter wasn’t literal, how much else of the good book was open to interpretation, or just plain hyperbolic grandstanding?

It was a hop, skip and jump from the question of ”how did life start, if not rolling off God’s tongue?” to ”does God in fact exist?”.

But humans are good at retrofitting old ideas to fit emerging new ones. Many theists are happy to accept that we are part of the food chain, rather than having God-appointed dominion over it, and even relinquish the literal creation story (although just as many don’t and still believe the earth and life were made in six days, which is laughable, given what we know about the workings of the universe).

Pragmatic believers argue that just because evolution seems true, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a God behind it.

That’s fine by me. I don’t have a problem with people believing that, as long as they don’t try to dress up the creation story as ”intelligent design” and claim this is a scientific explanation for evolution. That’s just intellectually dishonest.

I know, I know, we atheists, always picking away at other people’s beliefs. Can’t we just respect other faiths and leave them alone? Hmmm, possibly. But the main religions have been pushing their views from the pulpit for the past few thousand years — it is only sportsmanlike to give the secular rationalists their chance to push back once in a while. Besides, this is how new ideas slowly dislodge old, outmoded ones.

Which brings us back to the matter of the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Thanks to Darwin and the many natural scientists that followed, we now know that a chicken is a bird. Birds evolved from dinosaurs (at least the few that limped out of the cataclysm when the meteor struck 65-million years ago). Dinosaurs laid eggs. So the egg came a long, long time before the chicken. There you go. Civilised language has now been relieved of one of its enduring clichés.

Thanks, Chuck, and happy birthday.

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Leonie Joubert
Leonie Joubert works from Cape Town. Science writer: political-economy of climate change, the hunger-obesity poverty-paradox in cities, mental health Leonie Joubert has over 1355 followers on Twitter.

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