Saturday, February 12, 2011

Will the Caribbean ever find its Darwin?

It's Darwin Day! It gives me great pleasure to say that. When you become an atheist so many  holidays get dropped or become  reduced in their meaning. It is therefore a great thing when you are able to embrace a new "day of significance" which directly relates to the values which you hold dear. The fact that most of the population is blissfully unaware, making their way through stores to buy cards, red and white flowers and heart-shaped chocolates in preparation for a more recognised celebration is not a problem for me. I have the opportunity to sit here and reflect on this day of reason and the impact of this most influential thinker on our species.

In looking at Charles Darwin's legacy, the journey appears to be as significant as the discovery. The way that the many pieces of evidence came together to form  a fundamental theory governing all living organisms is truly fascinating. What caught my imagination today was Darwin's journey through the Galapagos Islands where he made his famous observation of the finches. We are told that Darwin was amazed at the diversity in the population of species that was present in such a small area, wondered how all these living creatures arrived where they were and  how they adapted so well to their conditions. The year 1831 was a bit before my time but I can fully understand Darwin's awe. Islands are indeed intriguing places to visit and we can learn an incredible amount  from studying them. In today's world so many people see islands as places to go to enjoy sun, sea and sand but I am sure it never dawns on any of them that it was in such an environment that the one of the greatest scientific insights ever was formulated.

I think that we that come from the Caribbean need to remember that. If you look at our islands you can see all the diversity in the people just as much as Darwin saw in the species of his day. Each island has something a bit different that can teach us something  about ourselves. The Caribbean islands  are indeed an ideal laboratory for learning much about our world. Over the years there are many "species" that have come and made these islands home. English, French, Spanish and Dutch influences are all there. Along with the African presence from the slave trade, there is significant Indian and Chinese influence as well as a small indigenous Carib population. The mixing across the cultures has produced much that is unique.  It is not only the people that have made the difference, the diversity in the natural endowments of the islands is equally captivating. The flat terrain and famous beaches of Barbados and Antigua contrast with the mountainous rugged landscape of nearby St.Lucia,Dominica and Grenada. Resources of oil and gas predominate in Trinidad, whereas Jamaica is rich in bauxite and Guyana in gold and other minerals. The history of the region  unfortunately also shows differences in living  conditions with some of our countries being  among the highest in terms of  standards of living in the world but others such as Haiti languishing as one of the poorest.
For every  territory in the Caribbean there is a country in the world that is analogous to it in some way, I am convinced that a detailed study of our islands and the people could help us a lot in understanding the dynamics of culture, immigration, governance,economics and impact of natural resources in the same way that Darwin's discovery in 1831 taught us ultimately the basic mechanism of how humans came to be. Today one of the most pressing issues the world is facing is that of climate change. Islands being the territories likely to be most affected. Here is where a modern day  Darwin could be studying the  impacts on all of  our species and  the way that changes in climate are going to effect the social evolution of our community and the world.

The tragedy is that given the culture in the region  today I am not sure that we are going to find our Darwin. In order to make discoveries that can be world altering one needs to employ a systematic scientific approach. Observing the world, forming hypotheses based on the insights and trying to tie the different threads of ideas together to form coherent theories. Most importantly, there must be a willingness to follow evidence wherever it leads even if it means letting go of  beliefs that have traditionally been seen as the bedrock of our existence. This is where we keep falling down as a people in the region, because the cornerstone of faith is one rock you can never pick up to look underneath. 

We West Indians have undoubtedly had our successes in numerous fields. In the area of music and culture we have made our mark. Bob Marley stands out in the world today as an icon that has given reggae music world wide recognition. The ingenuity of the Trinidadian people has given us the steel-pan which was the only instrument invented in the 20th century.  Our Barbadian sensation Rihanna continues to astound us all by reeling off hit after hit on the Billboard charts.We have distinguished ourselves with authors such as  V.S Naipaul and   Derek Walcott both of  whom have been rewarded with Nobel Prizes. Our cricket may be struggling at the moment, but we can recall great names like Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Brian Lara, the 3Ws, Clive Lloyd, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and many many more.  Jamaican World Champion sprinter Usain Bolt is the latest in along line of great runners from that island which includes the likes of Merlene Ottey.We have doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians that can rub shoulders with anybody else in the world. So lack of talent, education or creativity is not a problem for our people. You may therefore wonder  why I am so pessimistic about the region producing a scientist that can change the world.

The problem is that when it comes to critical thinking ,we fall down because we just can't disturb that rock of religion. We must  accept that God is the guiding hand in everything.  Once your worldview is governed by an individual who has ultimate authority; creativity and curiosity can only go back so far. I am not sure there is empirical evidence but I strongly believe that our resolute belief in God affects our approach in other areas of life. In my childhood the word that sticks out most in my mind is "obey." This started off with obedience to God illustrated by the attitudes of Abraham and Noah taught to us in Sunday School lessons before the age of  five. They both did exactly what God told them to do even though it went against common sense. Both were rewarded richly. For the disobedient ones like Adam and Eve or Ananias and Sapphira the outcome was  not so good. Once we had those concepts emphasised to us and the fear that went  along with it, we were told we needed to obey parents, priests and teachers in the same way. Often we felt the full consequences when we were deviant. It is not a coincidence that many Caribbean parents' favourite quote from the bible is, " Spare the rod, spoil the child."

When we grew older we were taught  we should always obey rules and the word " discipline" became another critical word in our vocabulary. We so often were told that the young people don't have discipline and that we should all be sent to boot camp to straighten us out. Of course the word discipline comes from "disciple" and that's what we were taught to be; faithful followers, just like one of the twelve.
In short it was as if the God in heaven came down  and manifested himself in these earthly authorities.

Up to today, whenever we have problems in the Caribbean we think the answer is to make laws more stringent. Last year  in Barbados students behavior at interschool sports began to deteriorate as they danced a bit too exuberantly for some. The answer from the government was to ban all musical instruments from the stadium. In the same year the prime minister himself stepped in to ban two artistes from coming to sing in the country because it was deemed that the message in their songs was not wholesome. "It was not exactly Sunday School material," was a comment I heard. An ironic statement if I ever heard one.This is typical of the type of responses we get to issues of bad  behaviour.  Banning things, more rules,  insisting that longer skirts or pants less baggy be worn, sending students home for incorrect footwear..At the end of everything,  all the ills in the country are blamed  on society turning away from God and children not going to Sunday School anymore. So it's more prayer, getting down on knees, pleading the blood, whatever. Anything other than actually teaching our young people how to reason.

People may think that  when we become adults we break out of this cycle. No,  it is similar when we start in the world of work. Many employees I have worked with in the Caribbean are at a complete loss unless the boss tells them exactly what he or she wants them to do and how to do it. There is often an expressed need for written rules . In fact it is quite regular to hear people speaking about some book that contains the main principles governing their work  as the "bible" of  the particular field they are in. There is generally a fear of ambiguity in situations and I have seen people almost paralysed  when they have been left to make a decision on their own. So, in most of the  islands we have policy document after policy document. A lady working in government on one of the islands told me once that you could  complete a construction project purely using  the card and paper the policies are written on. Yet, so often activities that are suppose to emerge from these guiding documents never get close to seeing the light of day.

Admittedly, in some areas of work the desire to operate from a  blueprint is not a bad thing. Many professionals work from blueprints. Builders work from the architects' drawings, engineers  rely on equations and formulae learnt at university, doctors similarly lean on what they have been taught in their anatomy classes or their own experience of how medicines work. However, few of the people in the Caribbean are actually involved in or even interested in working in an area where the goal is to generate new knowledge. We are the "downstream" professionals, very good at taking the crude product and refining it for the market but comparatively poor at searching for the new sources of oil. This is why it is so difficult for us to find a Darwin.  The skills of questioning, pulling back the curtain and digging  beyond the text book are just not there. They have been stunted from way back in Sunday School days. It is like a muscle that was never developed and now atrophy has set in.

This in my opinion, is the greatest harm of  living in a society steeped in religion. It's not the potential harm to   civilisation  through the slaughter of a witch, a parent opting for prayer instead of medicine, or the flying of a plane into a building. It is the lost opportunities for development that come directly from a paradigm that teaches us from very early not to question authority. Who knows how many great geneticists, evolutionary biologists or anthropologists in the Caribbean we could have had if not for the glass ceiling of religious belief. As a result,  I fear that we will have to wait for our Darwin to come from outside just as the first one came from England to make the discovery in those islands off Ecuador. I sincerely  hope that I am wrong.

Many Christians are, as we speak, looking for a second coming of Jesus in a few months time. I look forward to the second coming of  Darwin, one from among us that will bring an evolution in our way of thinking, enlightenment to the Caribbean and lead the region in showing the world the way.  I am sad to say that sometimes I wonder whether what I long for is any more plausible than what the rapture ready Christians expect to see in May.


  1. Well said, a crisis of reasoning ability and critical thinking skills in the region. Pondering the same thing. Is it even possible that such a figure would ever emerge in the immediate future. Our social system and culture doesn't bode well to producing a figure.

    Interesting point of comparison of the Galapagos islands and the Caribbean, brings to mind an event I attended a few years ago.

    The museum here in Barbados about 2 years ago held a seminar on the anniversary of Darwin's death or the publishing of the origin of the species (can't remember which date and yes this happened in Barbados).

    The point they were making though was about the characteristics of lizards found on Caribbean islands and the evidence of species diversification patterns similar to the Galapagos.

    The presenter actually asked at "what would have happened if Darwin had come to the Caribbean instead of the islands of the Pacific?" and he jokingly responded "well for one the Origin of the Species would almost definitely not be about birds."

    Your Darwin Day blog post just reminded me of that.

  2. Thanks Omar. You got it, so much comes down to critical thinking. I know that there are programs and activities being done in Barbados and the wider Caribbean that are exposing people to more science and the importance of people such as Darwin. But, so long as faith remains the number one thing that everybody must possess, we aren't going to get as far as we could.

    For example, if the government called for people in the country to form community groups to discuss and come up with project ideas to reduce climate change impacts, the response would very likely be lukewarm.

    However, if the government called for a mid-week Day of Prayer to ask God to protect the country from the ravages of hurricanes and other impacts related to climate change the churches would be over flowing with eager prayer warriors.

    We really need to rethink our prorities.

  3. Those are some interesting scenarios, especially the government calling for a prayer rally...that would be awesome! Faith in Darwin = Faith in man. Since religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence, Darwinism is actually a religion the government is comfortable in using although it is not acknowledged as a religion, possibly for a lack of organization. Darwinism as applied to creation seems out of place for Darwinism usually refers strictly to biological evolution, the term has been used by creationists to refer to the origin of life, and has even been applied to concepts of cosmic evolution, both of which have no connection to Darwin's work. The interesting thing about an expanded Darwinian theory is that it can fit into an intelligent design by a creator but alone it does not require a creator such that the randomly mutated species is the highest order of development, effectively creating a self-proclaimed species of "Gods". Now that's pretty empowering if true.

  4. NO, the theory of evolution is in no way like a religion. Indeed to speak about Darwinism is as absurd as speaking about Eisteinism or Newtonism. Darwin was the one whose scientific investigation led to the Theory of Evolution being established. Since then further investigations have borne out the predictions made by Darwin. Evidence from DNA has also supported the theory of evolution. Had the evidence not borne out what was predicted, the theory would have been thrown out, regardless of how dedicated people were to Darwin. There is no assertion that the theory is true because Darwin dictates it.

    This is the huge difference between science and religion. You just cannot equate the two.