Back in the mid-19th century, the H.M.S. Beagle sailed around the world, carrying with it an English naturalist named Charles Robert Darwin. Famous for his theories of evolution and natural selection, Darwin believed that all life could be traced back to a single starting point. That’s the premise he wrote from in his controversial book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), or Origin of Species for short. The controversy, however, lies not in the fact that he theorized a single starting point for life, but in the subsequent theorized events that followed.
Since then, the world has never been the same. The loosely coined period known as the Enlightenment ushered in a replacement of religious ideas with the "secular ideas" of science. Instead of an alternative pathway to discovering ourselves and our origin, as well as our purpose in life, science replaced the “traditional” notions of the time with another idea that became a religion in and of itself.
That religion came to be known as an all-encompassing connection of ideas called “scientific inquiry,” as shaped by the European Enlightenment. This religion, just like any religion, has spawned its own sects, practices and disciplines in order to establish itself and ensure its own perpetuation through the passing down of knowledge. As a vehicle for continuity, the public school system was adopted to become a kind of “church” for the secular. This church would teach people how to observe and follow a system based on purely scientific theories and thought. To ensure this purity in ideology, Thomas Jefferson penned the famous words "separation between church and state."
That is the pedagogical origin of our school system today, a child born of a strange wedding between the ideals of the Enlightenment and democracy in America. John Dewey’s foundational book on education in America espouses Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection by stating, "It is the very nature of life to strive to continue in being." Note the connection between Dewey’s words "to strive to continue in being" and Darwin’s words in his original title—Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The implied purpose of life is continuity. It is biological, devoid of anything metaphysical, and is purely an ideology of secular science.
Popular movies, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, trace back the origin of man not so much to the widely visible ape-man discovering his way to logic and progression, but to a most alien explanation. This is a more thought-provoking look at the dialogue between post-Enlightenment Darwinianism and the record-keeping of Genesis 1:1. The slight spin Kubrick puts on the dialogue is this: even Darwin’s theory of natural selection still could have only been built upon an inborn assumption that natural selection was subject to laws not of its own design. There is no doubt in ascertaining that Darwin could not have avoided the idea of origin and creation for he builds his theories based on its platform.
It is rumored that on his deathbed Darwin recanted his theories of evolution and natural selection, but the point as to whether he really did or not is moot. Darwin’s theories live on and are a powerful paradigm for the postmodern world we live in. We don’t even think about how it has infiltrated our own thinking or how it affects us and the assumptions we make about ourselves, the world and our relationship to it. And why should we? If we were halfway attentive students in school, we were successful candidates of science-based indoctrination.
But the story is not all that bad. The separation between secular and religious spheres of influence has constantly been at odds throughout and without the time of the Enlightenment. Sometimes they come together nicely, and at other times they’re like twins who wished the other was never born. Darwin did, however, agree with Creationists on one thing: that the origin of species had to start somewhere and that discovering that beginning point was the key to explaining the natural world as he knew it.
In the end, relevancy in our society means implicitly recognizing the split between pre- and post-Enlightenment, because it neatly frames our dialogues today whether we want them to or not. So the next time you engage a conversation with a neo-punk rocker, ask for his view on the dialogical relationship between pre- and post-Enlightenment periods. If he fails to understand what you’re getting it, start at the very beginning: the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle and a guy named Chucky Darwin.