Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Birthday, Uncle Charles

Charles Robert Darwin (1809—1882), gentleman amateur, med-school dropout, ground-breaking geologist, youthful traveller, lifelong naturalist; devoted husband, father, and homebody; authority on barnacles and worms; theorist on coral reefs, and both natural selection and sexual selection in evolution—a man both of and before his time—was born 200 years ago today.

Some articles in celebration:

In the London Review of Books, a heartbreaking poem by Ruth Padel, ‘The Sea Will Do Us All Good’ (subscription only, alas)

In the New York Times Science pages:
Darwin, Ahead of His Time, Is Still Influential
Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live
Genes Offer New Clues in Old Debate on Species’ Origins
Crunching the Data for the Tree of Life
Seeing the Risks of Humanity’s Hand in Species Evolution
Darwin the Comedian
and an interactive feature: On Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’

(Last year Olivia Judson ran a small series along similar lines, for the sesquicentenary of the announcement of natural selection: Darwinmania!, An Original Confession, and Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism.)

As the most provocative of those essays argues, Darwin is not evolution, and evolution is not Darwin. (We should also be careful to give Wallace his due.) In the limits of a few words, I tried to be precise about him: Darwin did not give us evolution, but he did give us natural selection and sexual selection—he gave us mechanisms for the process; and he gave us evidence. In any organised enquiry, evidence has to count for something. And in the natural sciences, mechanism counts for a lot.

His legacy is so distorted by the still-ongoing struggle of our culture to assimilate evolution: it's important to note that the concept not only predates Darwin, but also predates its own scientific respectability; and that the objections mostly concern a cluster of ideas in ethics and political economy that have little to do with biology. Yet, as some of the above-listed authors complain, it has all become bundled together in a package called “Darwinism”. (The idea of Evolution, with its permanent capital letter, is not much better.) In modern times at least, this reaction runs smack into many scientists' reverence for Darwin himself, and so the drama becomes knotted and unending. I hate to think what Darwin, a reflective and sensitive man, would have made of it.

It may ultimately be a distraction in understanding biology, but scientists are people too, and the worship of Darwin is as much about character and values as about the content of the science. The Old Man was painstaking, patient, and empirical, placing evidence before theory; intellectually honest but hating to give offence, devoting his life to his work but devoted to a personal life beyond it: he is every scientist's sainted Uncle Charles, the standard we know we can't live up to. Newton and Maxwell are authorities we respect; Galileo and Einstein are prophets, champions, and men of genius; and in my field, at least, Feynman is revered as a clay-footed hero. But Darwin ... Darwin is loved. Loved by many scientists, myself most certainly included.

Happy birthday to you, sir.

No comments: