I love studying about Darwin and his life and times. I have read enormous amounts, and taught Darwinian history. I’m teaching it again this semester. But enough already. Can we talk about modern biology now?
I get a strong impression ( and that’s all this is, as I can’t find empirical studies that support me, or that count against me here) that talking about Darwin reaches a plateau of interest fairly early on for the average sod, and that continuing to talk about him leads people to, possibly correctly, think that this is a cult of personality rather than something about the history and nature of science.
Compare this with the incredibly effective work of David Attenborough, who drops Darwin in where Darwin is needed to make sense of the material, but for whom the material – the living things he is fascinated by and imparts fascination of – is always paramount. We’ve had over fifty years of this apotheosising of Darwin, since the centenary. It has become tiresome.
At the time Darwin did his work we had the development of geography, ecology, systematics, comparative anatomy, early biochemistry, germ theory, epidemiology, modern medicine, physiology, pathology, cytology, geology and paleontology. All this happened more or less without reference to Darwin, and when he was employed in these fields later, often enough he was not all that useful. Now, I do not wish to imply that evolution is not a core concept in biology, as it clearly is, but it isn’t all that matters in biology, and if we wish to have an engaged and informed populace, it might be time to start talking about someone else.
Why Darwin is important is precisely not because he is a litmus test of rationality or modernity. It is because of the research program that he began. Note: not that he finished, but began. And he is wrong or incomplete about a great many things (I am not referring to heredity or genetics, either). We want folk to know modern science and act on it, not to stand on the Side of the Reasonable where that is defined as accepting Darwin as your epistemic saviour. We want informed decision making. But when scientists and pro-science promoters make it all about one guy and his ideas, however important, we have lost the plot a bit.
There. That should upset a few people.
Later: Richard Carter has more to add.