Believe it or not, this is a post about Charles Darwin and also about Ken Ham. I’m going to begin, though, with a story of how I spent my day. Please bear with me.
Today being Memorial Day, I expected to kick back with a few beers and a couple of hot dogs, and laze away the afternoon idly thinking deep, enjoyable atheistic thoughts. My wife had other ideas.
“It’s a perfect time for you to fix the door on the screened-in porch,” she said.
Now, the word “fix” is laughable when used in a sentence that also contains a reference to me. To say that I’m “unhandy” doesn’t even make a dent in describing my general ineptitude with gadgets and gizmos. I’m basically my own light bulb joke. How many Exterminators does it take to change a light bulb? One, but only if he can persuade someone else to do it. Hell, I sometimes have trouble putting new toilet paper on the roller.
What was wrong with the screen door was: its locking handles didn’t work. The inside lever was permanently stuck into the locked position, so that we couldn’t really open the door properly. If we forced it open and went into the yard, it locked behind us so that we couldn’t get back in. On the other hand, if we artificially propped it open, our cats would try to make a break for it. On top of everything else, the old handles were about twenty years old, installed long before my wife and I became the owners of the house, and they were weather-worn ugly.
But the awesome world of nature has made a small, beautiful niche in our yard. Taking the indirect approach, out the front door of the house, through the gate, and around to the porch side, is ridiculous. My wife was determined to enjoy nature’s wonders through the most direct route, and had planned ahead. She’d already purchased a brand new, pure white handle set. “Just take off the old ones, and substitute the new ones,” she explained.
Well, it wouldn't be quite that easy. The new mechanism was an entirely different size, and worked differently than the old one. Peeking through the impervious plastic packaging, I saw that it contained nearly twenty pieces, most of which looked unrelated to anything that was already on the door. I was sure I didn’t have most of the tools I’d need in order to fit those parts where they belonged. The directions, badly translated from the Chinese, were Greek — or one of the many other languages I don’t understand — to me. This was most definitely not going to be a mere substitution job. It was going to involve measuring and hand-eye coordination on a level far above my normal capabilities, or the limits of my patience.
But I noticed something right away, and tested it. The old, grey outside handle still seemed to operate fine. If I could make the new inside lever fit, I might have a workable door. I ripped open the plastic with my teeth, took out the replacement, and held it up for comparison with the broken part. It looked to me as if a substitution might be viable, but I couldn’t be sure. The only way to tell was to remove the unusable lever and replace it with the new one, ignoring all the other purchased parts. I even recycled the original screws. Voila! It fit.
There was a problem, though. The rusty old strikeplate — the contraption over which the tongue attached to the lever snaps into place — was the wrong shape and size to accommodate the new lever, and it wasn’t even in the right spot. Crap! I have to admit I was really reluctant to remove that piece of the puzzle. Changing the strikeplate seemed like a major step. I was going to have to remove the old one, measure for the new one, drill holes, screw the new bastard into place, and hope that the door held.
But OK. I’d committed myself, hadn’t I? So I carefully removed the old strikeplate, trying to make as little of a mess as possible in case I had to reverse my whole procedure. I held up the new one, gauged it with my eyes, asked my wife to make the appropriate marks because I have trouble working a pencil, and got out the drill. After spending an hour trying to decide which bit was appropriate, I just finally said “fuck it,” and gouged out two holes. Since the original screws were the wrong size for the new metal piece, I raided the plastic kit for the pair of screws that was intended to fit. They did, perfectly. Five minutes later, a new strikeplate was in place, and my door was once again able to open properly.
The color of the handle inside no longer matched the one outside, the jamb bore a few unimportant but unsightly holes left over from the previous strikeplate, and I still had about fifteen new pieces that I hadn’t used. I wasn’t even sure if the new parts would hold for long, but I couldn’t find any obvious flaws in what I’d figured out. I knew my friends and neighbors would make fun of my efforts, and doubt whether they’d pay off in the long run. But the damn door worked.
And suddenly, in the smallest, smallest, smallest (have I emphasized “smallest” enough?) way, I empathized with Charles Darwin. Before Origin of the Species, there was no direct route to nature’s wonders. The door was locked. The outside handle, all the observable effects of birth and death, didn’t need to be replaced. No one could deny that there were myriads of species, that some individual plants and animals survived to propagate while others did not, and that it was possible for various characteristics to be changed through generations by breeding selectively.
The inside lever was stuck, though. It was jammed up with supernatural ideas that kept it from opening the door. Even worse, it was held firmly in place by a strikeplate — the bible — that couldn’t coexist with a new lever. Reluctantly, Darwin measured, gauged, marked, and gouged. Finally, he removed the old strikeplate, and replaced it with a new one: science.
There were tons of leftover parts, which Darwin lacked the tools and understanding to include. The whole field of genetics, the “unraveling” of DNA, the ability to study microorganisms, and the vast expansion of the fossil record, these were just some of the tools that were unavailable to him. His new theory was not pretty, and anyone who looked closely could find a few holes in it. Many of his friends and neighbors made fun of his efforts, and doubted whether they’d pay off in the long run. But the damn door worked.
For a few days now, we rationalists of America have been wrapped up in decrying and deriding the well-publicized opening of Ken Ham’s inane Creation Museum. But another event that happened this May has gone underreported: In mid-month, the Darwin Correspondence Project successfully launched an online archive. Within a few clicks of a mouse, anyone with a computer can access this invaluable collection of over 14,500 letters that Darwin exchanged with more than 2,000 people during his lifetime. So while Ken Ham and his ignorant followers remain stuck, locked behind the rusty old bible strikeplate, the rest of us can relive Darwin’s experiences as he opened the door to nature.