Today, almost one hundred and fifty years after the publication of The Origin of Species, we are still arguing about Darwin. How is this possible? If Darwin's theory of natural selection is a scientific theory, as its defenders claim, then why hasn't it been able to establish itself securely in the public mind? Why, in short, is Darwin still the subject of continuing controversy and acrimonious debate?
Contrast this on-going battle over Darwin with the fate of the other great scientific revolutions. The same Christian fundamentalists who argue that public school should teach creationism have no quarrel with the Copernican revolution. No one argues that public schools should be forced to teach the Ptolemaic system because it permits Joshua to make the sun stand still. Yet polls in the USA show that a large segment of American society continues to reject Darwin's scientific revolution.
Modern proponents of Darwin, like Richard Dawkins, have an elegant explanation for this puzzling phenomenon. Those who reject Darwin are ignorant boobs who take the Bible literally. The Bible says God created man in his own image, and so that is what they believe, despite the evidence that shows that human beings share more than 98% of their genes with chimpanzees. Therefore, in order to get people to accept Darwin, you must first destroy their adherence to Biblical fundamentalism. Once people see that the story of Adam and Eve is simply a fairy tale, they will be in a position to embrace the idea that we all descended from lower primates. But is this interpretation really psychologically plausible? Is it only the second chapter of Genesis that stands in the way of a universal acceptance of Darwin's theory that we descended from creatures far more monkey-like than us-like?
The stumbling block to an acceptance of Darwin, I would like to submit, has little to do with Christian fundamentalism, but a whole lot to do with our intense visceral revulsion at monkeys and apes. This revulsion, while certainly not universal, is widely shared, and it is a psychological phenomenon that is completely independent of our ideas about the literal truth of the Bible.
Our visceral revulsion at the mere sight of lower primates has been noted by the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. Observing the visitors to the chimpanzee colony at the Arnhem Zoo, de Waal noticed a frequent pattern among them. Many people would stare at the chimps for a few minutes, then, after saying, "Oh I could watch them all day," they would swiftly make their way to the nearest exit. They had had enough monkey business. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, another great naturalist, was equally aware of this deep-seated revulsion against monkeys. In his novel Elective Affinities, a character declares her feelings about monkeys in no uncertain terms: "How can anyone bring himself to expend such care on depicting horrid monkeys! It is debasing simply to regard them as animal [!], but it is really more malicious to succumb to the temptation of seeking in them the likeness of people you know."
This visceral revulsion against monkeys explains why so many people prefer to hold on to the far more flattering mythology of man's creation as it was presented in Genesis. It is not Genesis that turns them against Darwin; it is Darwin that makes them turn to Genesis.
Now the proponents of Darwin will argue that a visceral revulsion is not a logical argument, and the proponents of Darwin will of course be right. From the fact that most people are horrified to think of themselves as descending from the lower primates, it does not follow that they must have arisen from a more respectable ancestry.
At the same time, those who accept Darwin (as I do) need to understand the true origin of the revulsion so many people feel against his theory. For the basis of this revulsion is none other than "the civilizing process" that has been instilled into us from infancy. The civilizing process has taught us never to throw our feces at other people, not even in jest. It has taught us not to snatch food from other people, not even when they are much weaker than we. It has taught us not to play with our genitals in front of other people, not even when we are very bored. It has taught us not to mount the posterior of other people, not even when they have cute butts.
Those who are horrified by our resemblance to the lower primates are not wrong, because it is by means of this very horror of the primate-within that men have been able to transcend our original primate state of nature. It is by refusing to accept our embarrassing kinship with primates that men have been able to create societies that prohibit precisely the kind of monkey business that civilized men and women invariably find so revolting and disgusting. Thou shalt not act like a monkey—this is the essence of all the higher religions, and the summation of all ethical systems.
Those who continue to resist Darwin are not standing up for science, but they may well be standing up for something even more important—a Dawkinsian meme, if you will, that has been instrumental in permitting mankind to transcend the brutal level of our primate origins. Our lofty humanitarian ethical standards have been derived not by observing our primate kin, but by imagining that we were made in the image of God. It was only by assuming that we were expected to come up to heavenly standards that we did not lower our standards to those of our biological next of kin. The meme that asserts that we are the children of God, and not merely a bunch of wild monkeys may be an illusion; but it is the illusion upon which all humane civilizations have been constructed. Those who wish to eliminate this illusionary meme from our general meme pool may be acting in the name of science; but it is by no means obvious that they are acting in the name of civilization and humanity.