Why is Darwin still a scientific hotshot? Because he codified the evolution genre. Many of his ideas on the mechanisms of evolution may be passe, but how evolution is supposed to work is not so important. Indeed, Darwin attached little importance to his speculations on the details. What was important, and remains important today, is that evolution works.
At its core evolution is not about natural selection operating on random biological variation or any other such mechanism. These can all be forfeited--they are auxiliary hypotheses.
At its core, evolution is about the species arising via natural law and natural process--whatever they may be. This was Darwin's key message and it remains the key message today. As Darwin explained:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, by Geoffroy St. Hilaire, by the author of the "Vestiges," by Mr. Wallace or by myself, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species, and have not been created immutable: for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field open to him for further inquiry.
Thus evolutionists speak of the theory of evolution and the fact of evolution. The theory involves those complicated mechanisms that we still haven't figured out. Just how did the most complex structures in the known universe arise on their own? The fact, on the other hand, is that, one way or another, those complex structures did evolve on their own.
A few speculative ideas on how biology's marvels maybe, could have, perhaps arose do not make evolution a fact. Evolution is compelling, as Darwin repeatedly argued, because the facts of biology refute design and creation.
Watson explains this clearly. With rhetoric worthy of Darwin the Nobel laureate points out that "Surely a creator could have done a better job at creating an efficient flying mammal, say by giving feathered wings to the bat?" Could the fact of evolution be more obvious? As Watson concludes:
One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me, that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates. With increasing knowledge, the intellectual darkness that surrounds us is illuminated and we learn more of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.
Let us not beat about the bush -- the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a "theory" in the same way as string theory is a theory is wrong. Evolution is a law (with several components) that is as well substantiated as any other natural law, whether the law of gravity, the laws of motion or Avogadro's law. Evolution is a fact, disputed only by those who choose to ignore the evidence, put their common sense on hold and believe instead that unchanging knowledge and wisdom can be reached only by revelation.
The evolutionist's religion is plain for all to see. But as usual, he is in denial and manages to locate the religious influence not in evolution but in its skeptics. After issuing his theological mandates, Watson judges himself as he hypocritically warns of those "religion-dominated scientists." Religion drives science and it matters.