by Prof. David Stack
September 2017 was not the best month for Charles Darwin. The introduction of the new £10 note saw his bearded profile usurped by a polymer Jane Austen; the Erdogan government implemented its removal of the teaching of evolution from the Turkish school curriculum; and A.N. Wilson published a new biography, which called Darwin out as a ‘mythmaker’ and opened with the uncompromising assertion: ‘Darwin was wrong.’
Darwin’s status as secular saint of science will almost certainly withstand these assaults. There have been many previous attempts to take evolution off school curricula, most notoriously in the inter-war US, and if the Turkish ban creates a set-piece as rich in symbolism as the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1926, and a play and film adaptation as good as ‘Inherit the Wind’, it might even enhance Darwin’s allure! As for the biography, there have been no shortage of scientists and historians lining up to point out: ‘Wilson is wrong’.
This is as it should be: Darwin was a brilliantly innovative thinker of enduring influence in and beyond science, and defending his reputation and legacy can be as much a matter of contemporary politics as it is of historical accuracy. Yet for all that, historians of the nineteenth century science can be forgiven an occasional flush of ambivalence at the attention – good and bad – heaped upon the man whose friends came to refer to him jokingly as the ‘Sage of Down’ and the ‘Pope of Science’.
In the case of Darwin, the historian’s challenge is not the common task of rescuing a reputation or salvaging scraps of a life from a dearth of documents. On the contrary, there are a host of celebrity Darwin devotees, and an ever-burgeoning bonanza of online resources chronicling his correspondence and corpus, to do that. The difficulty, unusually, lies in bringing Darwin back to manageable, human proportions, both to better understand the man and to rescue his many worthy forerunners and contemporaries from the shadow his overpowering presence casts.
The trick is to do this without diminishing Darwin. Every new book that delineates Darwin’s debts, and connects his insights to the parallel investigations of others; every study that explores his often flawed reasoning on questions of gender and race; and every attempt to situate Darwin in the intellectual context of nineteenth century Britain, is a worthwhile contribution to the historical understanding of Darwin and his theory. Taken together they should deepen our appreciation of Darwin, not diminish him. The fundamental mistake of Wilson’s biography – lurking below any errors, elisions, or tendentious readings – is an apparent determination to treat historicization as an act of hostility.
A better approach is to recognize Darwin’s shortcomings and explore his weaknesses, while acknowledging his greatness. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett argued, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, by unifying ‘the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law’, has a claim to be considered ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had’. Or, more succinctly, as the title of my son’s end of Year Six production put it, Darwin Rocks!