Darwin Day: Enough already

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.

64 thoughts on “Darwin Day: Enough already

  1. Actually, my impression, for what it’s worth, is that the impetus for this alleged obsession with Darwin originates in the anti-evolution camp. Evolutionary biologists and other supporters of the theory are labeled collectively and pejoratively as “Darwinists”; the smear campaign against the man himself alleges his theory enabled the excesses of eugenics and the horrors of the Holocaust and that he himself was both racist and imperialist.

    In military terms, this is a well-proven tactic: force an opponent to conform to your strategy by attacking a target it will feel compelled to defend and a number of proponents of evolution have fallen for it. Perhaps, in their anxiety over defending science against those who would undermine it for religious or political reasons, they have allowed a highly-respected researcher to be elevated to iconic status but, like it or not, this has become more about politics and public relations than science

    Darwin’s seminal role in the development of biology is well-established but he is now an historical figure. The current theory of evolution has been elaborated and expanded far beyond his original concept. Even if he were to be revealed as having been every bit as bad as his critics allege it would not make the slightest bit of difference to the standing of the theory as an explanatory framework. Unfortunately, that counts for little in the conflict between science and its religious critics.

  2. We commonly measure things in physics with Newtons, Einsteins, Volts, Ohms, etc. Have you ever seen the definition of the Darwin, a unit of evolution? I’ve heard of it, don’t remember the exact definition, and haven’t seen it used in recent years.

    1. It was invented, I think, by J.B.S. Haldane. It isn’t used because it is zoocentric and unfortunately ignores the fact that rates of change are relative to generations, not years.

      1. Zoocentric? And who says rates of change are relative to generations? That might be one useful measure (though it would be seriously non-operational), but years are another reasonable measure.

        1. So you think that the rate of evolution for a bacterium that divides every 20 minutes is commensurate with the rate of evolution for an elephant with a 30 year generation and the same metric should be used? Or that plants that propagate vegetatively should be commensurate with discrete zygote bottlenecks in animals?

          I stick by what I said, both conceptually and historically (the darwin was criticised that way at the time by botanists, although I no longer have those references).

      2. Why, yes, if you’re trying to characterize the speed of evolution. Some taxa evolve more quickly than others. Short generations can be one reason for such variations, but you won’t be able to test variations in rate unless you have a measurement of rate that doesn’t incorporate causes of that variation. Now if you want to look at variation in rate per generation, that would be nice too.

        But you haven’t made quite clear what the “zoocentric” bit was about. If it’s the need for discrete generations, that would seem to argue against using a measure that counts generation time. For a host of reasons, vegetative reproduction being among them but by no means the most important, plant generation times are hard to talk about meaningfully. And so the Darwin would be less zoocentric than the generational measure you hint at.

        Now, if anything, the Darwin is biased toward organisms that have quantitative characters. Animals have plenty, plants have plenty, but bacteria are a bit short of them, especially in features that fossilize. But that hardly seems to warrant the epithet “zoocentric”. If botanists complained, I would like to know the reasons they gave.

  3. I agree with Mr Carter. Ive just started to really look at Darwins life and times.

    Ian Musgraves bit on collecting and collections was great. Ive been looking at a diffrent side of that, the commercial trade in animals and anthropologcal artifacts, it involves ordinary people.

    Ian can give the key note speech at some distingushed event, I could go round schools in some of Londons most economicaly deprived areas and show the connection they have to a very diffrent world and one that kids from working class areas of the uk still cannot aspire to be involved in due to the lack of social mobility we have in the uk.

    One approach is not going to work.

  4. I can do the talks to working class kids too (I have for astronomy at least), I just have to change my pitch. Being in “The Port” I can point out the part the common sailors played in collecting and conserving these specimens, and carrying expeditions (not to mention the humble captains logs, which have played a role).

    There was so much going on at those times, with many things interconnected. Intriguing sources are “The Knife Man”, a biography of the anatomist John Hunt, which overlaps the appearance of Owen and Darwin on the scene, the story of Simes Covington, Darwin’s shooter, “Mauve” the story of the first artificial dyes (which became the sources of histological stains), “The Map that Changed the World”, “Darwin and the Barnacle” (the story of Darwin’s study of Barnacles) and biographies of Wallace. You may notice several people keep turning up (including the astronomer Maskelin)

    1. “Darwin and the Barnacle”

      Wonderful book (and the movie got that part about right). That book and Voyage of the Beagle really gave me a picture of who Darwin was (as opposed to some thoroughly forgettable biography by IIRC Gribbin I read a few years earlier).

      1. “I can do the talks to working class kids too”

        Judging by you’re first account you would do it much better than me, it was a great read. I would have to change pitch as well, It’s a serious subject.

        Thanks for the sources. By coincidence I developed the notion from studying folk narratives on the barnacle and spontaneous generation in communities that did a roaring trade in the sale of seabirds.

        Common sailors and very low paid natural historians on voyages of discovery(government pay has always been thus!) could earn extra income trading artifacts to exotic animal dealers, who would offer them to institutions at cut price rates if they bought the more expensive animal stock.

        Its the stories they told to sell their wares and the economy and ecology of such chatter I find interesting.

    1. Jeb, that’s cool! Another book I neglected is “The Plant Hunters: Tales of the Botanist-Explorers Who Enriched Our Gardens” which deals with 18th-early 20th century explorers who found exotics for the European nursery trade. The development of the ability to transport live specimens is fascinating.

  5. p.p.s John I just strayed across this from 1959 on a paper on Blythe and Darwin. I rather liked it.

    “Today one hundred years after the publication of the Origin books…..it may be that we unconsiously prefer to see the formulator of the evolutionary hypothisis in solitary grandeur and isolation, a modern day Moses descending from the mountian. Darwin, like George Washington, has come to bulk larger than human. He fills. and fills admirably, our need for a symbol. He has become one of the immortals. He is inviolate and sanctified. Investigations of the sources of his thought fade before the majesty of his achievment. If we are forced by facts to acknowledge that a few men entertained inspirational flashes of similar thinking before Darwin’s time, we do so with discomfort and a feeling of guilt before the awe-inspiring farther-image in our minds. We frequently prefer to drop the subject or to repeat the old formula of total independant invention.

    In being thus evasive, however, we are falsifying scientific history. We are making the assumption that one of the widest read naturalists of his day was incapable of perceiving in books what he was so remarkable adept in seeing when he looked at tortoises and finches. To examine the sources of Darwins thought is not to deprecate the magnitude of his accomplishment. It merely places that achievment in proper perspective, so that we can see how easily and imperceptibly the flow of thought passes from age to age, even when superficially there appears to be unrelated leaps or spectacular dissension.”


    The faults you are disscussing have nothing to do with history, it’s more akin to the legendary proof used in elite hagiography and the foundation legends of folk culture.

    Perhaps biology has to embrace it’s history, I don’t think you can make sense of the present with out it and I must confess I can think of a few biologists and philosophers who make very little sense to me.

  6. I strongly suspect that a lot of the hagiographic stuff comes from the ability of the BBC to do costume dramas surrounding Darwin. I doubt you’re going to have the same thing done around Mooto Kimura, for example, because he wasn’t a Brit, though, perhaps, someday the mid-20th century U of Wisconsin will seem quaint and bucolic.

    The big problem with Darwin is The Descent of Man, which is an atrocious book filled to the brim with bigotry. That and his encouragement of Francis Galton’s proto-eugenics – Francis Galton explicitly said that Origin of Species was his great motivation and he published the letter of encouragement that C. Darwin sent him after he read it . And there is the fact that at least four of his sons were heavily involved with eugenics, including Leonard who followed Galton as the head of eugenics in Britain. I did a search for criticism of eugenics by those who knew Charles Darwin and came up empty. Unlike his adoring fans today, those people knew the man. To shield him from the charge that his work led to eugenics you would have to have contemporary supporters of Charles Darwin with as intimate a knowledge of him as his own children who rejected associating him with eugenics and those people don’t exist. Those are historical facts, no matter how much that is denied, it is baggage that evolutionary biology doesn’t need. That is the baggage that Darwin and Galton and just about every major figure in evolutionary science up to WWII have placed on the subject, it’s well past time to get shut of it, though the Darwinian fundamentalists seem intent on reviving it or similar ideological speculations even today.

    The confirmation of the fact of evolution came after Darwin. Other mechanisms of evolution have been discovered, I’d guess it’s likely that others will be discovered, perhaps enough to diminish the importance of the metaphor of natural selection to a minority position in the future.

    About the folk etymology that “mostly creationists use the word “Darwinism”, which I’ve traced to the Scienceblogs, Orac, in particular. The fact is that Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, was the man who gave “Darwinism” its current meaning in his review of Origin of Species, A. R. Wallace wrote a book called “Darwinism”, it has been used by the fans of Darwin up to and including Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in their writing. The idea that “mostly creationists use the word “Darwinism” is horse feathers from people who have lousy research skills. Lousy research skills are found in abundance among the casual fans of Darwin.

  7. “About the folk etymology”

    A nice example from a press report of a london monkey show in 1872.

    “Mr. Jamrach, whose head man appeared thoroughly to have adopted the theory of Lord Monboddo, more recently denominated the “Darwinian”

    It just demonstrates how lazy wiggish history is. This was an early attack used throughout the 1870’s.

    Claim it’s a tailed man theory who’s origin lies with a philosopher still remembered in popular imagination as bonkers, find misionaries still attached to the tailed man theory claiming to have found them in far flung corners of the earth and suggest that this is the proof “Darwinian’s” need to prove the theory.

    Both creationists and many in science simply use a popular form of argument that is as old as the hills, easy to do, has popular appeal, avoids having to do any actual research and you can construct a defense or attack
    without having to give it much thought.

    Given the importance both sides place on the debate the level of indolence is breathtaking but indicative of its enduring widespread appeal and popularity.

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