Much ado about Darwin

There has been an awful lot of hand-wringing going on over Charles Darwin lately. Some have picked up a long-running meme and proclaim "One hundred fifty years without Darwin is too long!" while others declare that we should kill every Darwin we meet. Just as every American president must "Get right with Lincoln" every biologist must "Get right with Darwin" in one way or another. (Thus far, I think Ed is the only one who has really got it right.)

What I find particularly amusing, however, is that those who assert that we must sweep Darwin under the rug to save biology do little to produce the change they so desperately want to see. I am thinking specifically of the recent editorials by Steve Jones and Carl Safina. Even though both authors complain that we have had too much Darwin already, their criticism revolves entirely around him, sometimes even puffing up claims that there is a "cult of Darwinism" that blinds us to significant work by other scientists.

Now it is true that there are some folks who present to us an image of Saint Darwin, a naturalist whose expertise ranged so widely that he solved all the major biological enigmas of his era. As John Wilkins notes, this is a wholly false view, but it is equally foolish to assume that modern biology would be just the same as it is now had Darwin not published On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, or any of his other works (more on this point tomorrow). We need to understand Darwin in proper historical context, and if people are genuinely interested in that I say "Good!"

It is true that Darwin gets the lion's share of attention when the history of evolutionary science is discussed, but I do not see the same "cult of Darwinism" that Jones and Safina are so bothered by. Indeed, it seems that Jones and Safina are confusing events and publications organized in Darwin's name as celebrations meant to pay homage to Darwin alone. This is not true, and while Darwin certainly is the focus of many events (this is the 200th anniversary of his birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, after all) there are plenty that discuss recent developments in evolutionary research. The latter events might not command as much newspaper coverage and it might take a minor amount of effort to find them, but they are there nonetheless. (If you're in the vicinity of Rutgers, here is a list of the evolution events scheduled at the university.)

This is just as well, as many scientists are not as well-versed in the history of their discipline as we might like them to be. When it comes to Victorian science I would rather hear Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond, James Moore, or Martin Rudwick than Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, or James Watson. In fact many of our misunderstandings about Darwin come from the fact that Darwin's work and that of his contemporaries are often mentioned only in passing. This is the sort of approach to the history of science I encountered in high school where the present state of science was so important that what certain naturalists did or didn't do was often confused. This approach had me under the delusions that Georges Cuvier was a Biblical literalist, Charles Lyell saved geology from the evils of catastrophism, Lamarck was a fool, and Darwin discovered evolution. Thankfully I now know better, but unless we discuss the history of science these misunderstandings will continue to be promulgated.

We need to be vigilant about hero-worship in science, but from what I have seen many scientists are aware that Darwin was not the be-all and end-all of evolutionary science. Those who charge that we are all suffering under some Darwin-delusion have either not looked very deeply into the celebratory events planned this year or decided to pick up the pen on a particularly cranky day. They might better serve their own goals if they stopped attacking straw men and told us about the contributions of other important scientists. I don't expect that this will be the case for it is far easier to criticize than do something constructive, but plenty of other science enthusiasts have organized events that both celebrate Darwin and what we have learned during the past 150 years.

Post-Script: If you want to read something really cool about Darwin and how his ideas were misappropriated in archeology, check out Martin's fascinating post. I hope we see more essays like this one this year.

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We need to be vigilant about hero-worship in science

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Current example - looking in from outside the US, I can see an eerily similar phenomenon playing out with Obama. Some on the Side of Righteousness have been waxing over-eloquent about his knowledge, his capabilities, and what he's actually accomplished in his political career to date. On the other side, some of the Forces of Darkness are already sneering "How do you like your god Obama now?" and "Guess the glow from his halo is blinding him to reality."

What they have in common is that neither group seems willing to investigate and find out what the man actually stands for and what he might be reasonably expected to accomplish.

Not an exact parallel, of course (they never are), but I'm struck by the similarities.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 11 Feb 2009 #permalink

I should also have said that I enjoyed the post. I'm not a scientist, but it seemed to me to be both informative and balanced.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 11 Feb 2009 #permalink

Isn't interesting that when you make someone into a hero, that automatically makes him a villain in the eyes of those who disagree with you?

Nobody's worth worship, you can learn from anyone. But some people -- like Darwin -- have more to offer than others.

An excellent post Brian. I often find that in documentaries about the discovery of evolution and the role natural selection plays in it too little emphasis is put on the scientific context within which Darwin thought out his theory, and the way that theory has been verified, grown and changed as we have learned more. It's a shame since the story of how the sciences of biological classification and geology combined to lead scientists first to evolution and then to natural selection is a fascinating one. Reading about scientists of the early 19th century, both real or imagined (Stephen Maturin, a character created by the novalist Patrick O'Brian, springs to mind), you get a real sense that here was a process that was just waiting to be discovered. Darwin (along with Wallace) got there first, and did it well enough to justify IMHO his fame, even if much of what he proposed has been improved on in the intervening 150 years.

What I want to see is Darwin being the starting point for the exploration of evolutionary theory, and certainly not a prophet-like figure on whose authority all stands of falls, and hopefully that's what we'll get.

It is true that Darwin gets the lion's share of attention when the history of evolutionary science is discussed, but I do not see the same "cult of Darwinism" that Jones and Safina are so bothered by. Indeed, it seems that Jones and Safina are confusing events and publications organized in Darwin's name as celebrations meant to pay homage to Darwin alone.

I wouldn't want to hang around Jones or Safina on the Fourth of July. If I invited them to my barbecue to watch the fireworks, they might think I was planning a sacrificial rite for some cult of Jeffersonism.