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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.


  1. kubla kubla

    Interesting little rant, John. Is any other scientific figure treated in the same way? There is the phrase “Newtonian physics,” but I don’t think that Newton is treated as the alpha and omega of physics in the way that Darwin seems to get roped into such duty for biology. After all, we know that Newtonian physics got one-upped and circumscribed by relativity (good old Einstin) and quantum mechanics. But, if Darwinolatry is unique, why? Is it a side-effect of the controversy about evolution that centers on Darwin’s formulation?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Newton did play that role in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I can’t think of any other eponymous hero in science as of now. Expect to see Turing used in the 21st century, later.

      • Bob O'H Bob O'H

        How about Einstein? I think he’s used in a slightly different way to Darwin -he’s revered as a Very Clever Man by people who generally don’t understand his theories.

      • Why was there never a Wallacianolatry cult?

      • Kel Kel

        pfft, Turing is already an intellectual hero of mine. Study AI and it’s hard not to be impressed by what he contributed. 😉

  2. Michael Fisher Michael Fisher

    Biology is nearly just the naming of parts (stamp collecting) without the explanatory power of evolutionary processes. It is the calculus of biology.

    If the word Darwin is a red rag to some people & makes the eyelids flutter in other people. Well it is they who haven’t seen (or don’t want to see) the light

    Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin, Darwin…

    I can happily & profitably think in Darwin mode all day long


    • Yes, but there is MUCH more to modern evolutionary theory than Darwin. Nor did he get it all right, nor could we even rationally expect him to. Or did the subsequent researchers in the field simply waste their time?

    • You do not see “Newton Day” or “Einstein Day.” You might see “Curie” celebrations, maybe even a “Mary Anning Day,” but active celebratory or reverent expositions upon the quality of the person is often only corollary to the work which they put themselves to, or is massively undervaluing the man as individual (which is often put to the point of reverence in Darwin’s case, but seems to undermine Newton (alchemist, God-lover) or Einstein (god-lover, kind of a sod himself).

      I think “cult of personality” is putting it weakly, John. Personality cults (in America, we either dread or revere the “Palinites”) never actively reverse the individual, but an icon of said person with direct disregard to the person’s flaws. In Darwin’s case, I think it gets borderline cultic. Note, perhaps, parallels in John Paul II and Darwin; they are both beatified in one fashion or another, whose work is so redeeming of any flaws, that the flaws (JP’s advocacy of childmolesters, e.g., or Darwin’s debilitating psychoses about the meaning of his work and his apparent borderline faith) are expunged as undeserving of the figure. Place him on a pedestal, drape him in gold, and cite his work and teachings, and you have a saint.

      • Brian Brian

        What an odd comment!

        JPII didn’t have many redeeming qualities. He certainly gained a lot of good popularity, but so does Lady Gaga. As did (not my) Mother Theresa, the friend of suffering, poverty and building convents, but enemy of the poor. But that is no reason to attack a decent man like Darwin.

        I’m not into hagiography as you obviously are. Darwin was a man of his times. Nowhere near perfect, but he was still a good man. The fact that he struggled with the consequences of his theory (which you term psychoses without evidence that he was psychotic) is in no way a failure. Just shows he had a conscience.

        JPII didn’t, he engaged in Hucklebery Finn morality* and applied rules that had no rational basis** on behaviour because that’s what the ridiculous catholic dogma says to do. Helped by his right hand man Darth Ratzinger.

        ** For example, humans having sex for non-procreative reasons is exemplary of being human (or a higher ape) not of being an animal. Most animals have sex purely for procreative purposes, they only engage in sex during eostrus. Bonobos, Humans, and to a lesser degree
        Chimps engage in sex for pair bonding reaons. Or in the case of Bonobos (and Tiger Woods), just for any bonding reason. That the church terms sex without the intention of procreation wrong shows how wrong the church is.

        But anyway….

  3. Paul D. Paul D.

    It seems to me that Creationists bring up Darwin and use the term “darwinism” far more often than scientists  — secular or religious — and theistic evolutionists. I suspect it’s a bit of a disingenuous bait-and-switch, since it’s a lot easier to slander and dismiss one man who’s been dead a long time — and then pretend that this dismissal is valid for all evolutionary science — than to try denying the solid, honest work that hundreds of thousands of scientists do every day. Creationists like portraying “Darwinism” as some kind of opposing religion so they can attack evolution on rhetorical and religious grounds rather than factual grounds.

    • Michael Fisher Michael Fisher

      Using John’s phrase above *gets out dictionary*…

      Darwin is my “epistemic saviour” & should be yours too

      His line of reasoning kick-started a way of thinking that for the first time enabled us to fruitfully ask What is the meaning of life ?

      Darwin put us on the right road to answering that most important of all questions. In my view he has earned the right to have the entire bloody road named after himself even if he travelled only the first few miles 🙂


  4. @Paul D.

    I used to agree with that sentiment but I’ve been reading some philosophy lately, and Darwinism and Darwinian run rampant through what I have read. Typically it is nuanced, however – Darwinism means the evolutionary theory that Darwin espoused in the 19th century, not evolutionary theory itself.

  5. Gunnar Gunnar

    Hear, hear!

  6. Been feeling the same way as of late, John. Feels like idol worship every one and then, but, of course, if one says that he would be labeled a ‘Creationist’, even if he’s an ardent evolutionist.

  7. Brian Brian

    I’m teaching it again this semester.

    I thought you were a destitute ex-teacher. Who hired you?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      It’s just this subject, a sessional contract.

      • fvngvs fvngvs

        Welcome back to the grindstone.

      • Brian Brian

        Bugger. Was hoping some institution had come to there senses.

  8. Thank you. I *loathe* the obsession with Darwin. It is overhyped, outdated and even actively misleading. Is it too much to ask that the hard work of the hundreds, no, thousands, who came after Darwin be recognised in discussing evolutionary biology? Might my labmates just as well quit the field because their work was not conducted by Darwin and will therefore fall secondary to 19th century achievements? Must those of us whose fields did not even exist back then remain silent and content with being thoroughly ignored by all but our immediate discipline, simply because our subjects were never mentioned in The Origin?

    The “Darwinism” cult greatly skews evolutionary biology, fostering multiple hyperpolarised false dichotomies that are outright deleterious to scientific progress. The public is misled into believing there is an accepted “mainstream” view of evolution, and everyone who deviates from it in any way is an attention-seeking rebel. I’m not talking about creationists – they matter little in the grand scheme of things, and are just irritating noise we have to live with. I’m talking about those who account for the role of non-adaptive processes in evolution*, those who believe in the important role of epigenetics (“Lamarckian”? Who the fuck cares?!), those who pursue multi-level/group selection. Molecular and microbial evolution did not exist in Darwin’s time, and I’d argue they are actually perhaps more important as generalisations than zoological evolution, which applies to but <1% of the total biodiversity. Which, by the way, people in Darwin's time could not even suspect.

    *thanks to misreading of Darwin we have practically everyone, including many professional biologists, equating evolution with selection. That is wrong. Not arguably, but factually wrong.

    I see a substantial disconnect between what is actually studied by real, living, contemporary evolutionary biologists around me, and what the public sees. Maybe we're not as fascinating as Darwin, maybe we don't write well in flowery Victorian English, but I think at least some of our stories are too worthy of being heard. In a twist of irony, it has gotten to the point that Darwin has become an obstacle for us.

  9. I think some of the reverence people grant to Charles Darwin is also due to his embattled stance, the underdog quality of a poorly understood and wrongly vilified person of historical influence.

    John, you’re right; Psi is right; it would be nice if people understood he is not the end-all to biology and that there can be legitimate dissent to some of his ideas. But while a large portion of the lay public vaguely think he is responsible for Hitler and Nazi ideology it’s a constant battle to keep the interesting truth about Darwin alive in the public sphere.

    Pardon me, I’m off to don my blue-footed booby boots and pray in the direction of Galapagos.

    • Rebekah Higgitt Rebekah Higgitt

      The idea that Darwin was embattled or an underdog is a part and not a cause of the reverence. An outline of some of this tendency can be read in this post on the myth that Darwin was denied a knighthood.

  10. I’ve had thoughts along these lines, just a bit. I think the current ascendency of Darwin is due to: 1) The recent sesqui/bicentennial (hey, it’s a good excuse for a party) and 2) A bit of pushback against, well, you know who.

  11. John, I’m not sure of your point. Is it that we should avoid naming things after Darwin altogether? I think the title “Darwin Day” is wonderful, because of its irony quotient.

    I’ve been a speaker at four different Darwin Day events in each of the past 4 years. I’ve never yet been subjected to hagiography. Of course, people invite me to talk about new science, so maybe other Darwin Day events have a more historical focus.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I’m not supposing that those who attend or speak at Darwin Days do hagiography, necessarily, although given the quality of a lot of published papers during the most recent Darwin year, I’ll bet a lot is. What I am saying here is what Ian says below: that we are being forced by our opponents into defending or promoting Darwin rather than modern biology. Let’s have an Evolution Day instead. Or even better, a Biology Day.

      The emphasis on a nonsense word – “Darwinism” – has caused untold problems of inference, public policy and education. This goes back to Darwin’s own time, of course, and in particular the invention of the notion that there are some core, unchangeable and philosophical doctrines to be defended under that term. I have in mind such books as Flew’s Darwinism of the 70s, as well as Dennett’s focus upon Darwin’s one idea of natural selection, when I think the more relevant notion is common descent, or phylogeny, and it is this that most strongly influences modern biology of all Darwin’s ideas. Selection is rarely employed outside some molecular investigations into selective sweeps. But phylogeny is crucial to almost all inferences in biology.

      History is interesting… to historians. If what you are trying to achieve is to show how we got here, then history is crucial. But if you want, as I said, informed public understanding of science, history is largely irrelevant. I say this as a quandam historian of ideas.

      • Thanks, I think you’re right about the history from the point of view of jaded academics. But laypeople actually engage with this history, and it’s a history that we do rather well nowadays. “Darwin” as a marketing tag has a connotation more or less in lines with the purpose of these events — people know the message is *contra* creationism.

        Maybe we could do better, but “Evolution Day” is anodyne, and abandons the rationale of having events on a common date everywhere. “Biology Day” sounds like an event where the evolutionary biologists are tucked into a corner somewhere. Certainly not an event where every year the keynote is given by an evolutionary biologist.

  12. bob koepp bob koepp

    “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.”

    Yes, a thousand times, yes. Evolutionary theory addresses questions of origin, appealing to what Mayr called ‘ultimate’ causes — in contrast to ‘proximate’ causes that figure in domains such as physiology. And since explanations in terms of ultimate causes are logically dependent on (i.e., make essential reference to) processes that are elucidated in terms of proximate causes, well, it should be obvious that there’s actually quite a lot in biology that “makes sense” (proximally speaking…) even without the significant light that evolutionary theory generates.

    If one really wants to find “core” concepts in biology, I’d suggest starting with things like ‘life’ and ‘organism.’ These nuts are hard to crack.

  13. mcK9 mcK9

    “hyperpolarized false dichotomies” caught my eyes
    we do have way too many of them guys

    and something is missing in the string above
    the Everlasting Gospel of love, love, love

    loving the lifeforms in all their great diversity
    loving the twists, tropes, mini-mutant perversities

    wonder if this box transmits lines of poems
    or will unify for discourse and break my bones

  14. Lobachevsky’s New Foundations of Geometry was published around 1830. On the same year passed away Joseph Fourier, the author of Fourier sequences. You have to study several years to understand useful theories of both scientists.

    Oddly enough comparing such triffle as “natural selection” still was to wait for its discovery at that time!

    One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc.

    But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection”
    recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

    So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

    • VMartin wrote:

      One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist.

      A.R. Wallace independently observed it. To notice natural selection requires quite a few prerequisites, just as to notice the Earth orbits the Sun requires a degree of technical sophistication. You need long term observations of population variation, the ability to link variation to heredity, the ability to link variation to survival and the ability to look at populations in differing environments.

      While elements of these observations were occurring before the 19th century, it was only in the late 18th and 19th century that you begin to get large scale organised natural history collecting and collections (and the ability to disseminate this information widely) critical for understanding natural selection.

      Isolated collections of fossils and animal as curiosities were replaced by systemic collections, revolutions in anatomy allowed detailed comparisons of contemporary and extinct organisms. The large scale expeditions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries greatly expanded the repertoire of organisms that were available to study, and the understanding of the ecologies they lived in (as well as improvements in preservation and the ability to bring back live specimens for study).

      As never before were people able to understand the role of the environment in the web of life, Darwin was instrumental in launching the science of ecology, and Wallace and Darwin gave birth to bio-geography, both prerequisites for understanding natural selection.

      Revolutions in scientific instrumentation helped too (Darwin himself was responsible for several advances in lens design so microscopic analysis of organismal variation could be conducted as never before). At the same time animal breeding was moving from an ad hoc system to an organised, scientific process with meticulous breeding records over large numbers of species and time periods and national meetings to discuss advances where information could be exchanged. The scientific approach to artificial selection informed Darwin’s view of natural selection. Again, people have been doing stock breeding for improvement since time immemorial, but it was only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that a wealth of quantifiable data became available.

      Darwin spent decades doing experiments, and corresponding with other experimenters, Wallace spent years in the field quantifying variation. These findings were not available to people like Lamark and earlier evolutionary thinkers.

      • A superb historical analysis Mr Musgrave, respect!

      • If you’re gonna respect, it’s Dr Musgrave. Bastard is too damn clever by half…

      • As far as I’m informed Ian does not include the practice of medicine amongst his undoubted many talents and being a traditional Englishman I only address medical practitioners as Dr, all other human beings (and the occasional gorilla) are Mr or Ms!

      • Thony C, as an Englishman you know MD’s are only called doctors because once upon a time physicians had to have a PhD in theology before being allowed to enroll in medicine.

        Polite Englishmen know that all who hold a philosophiae doctor should be addressed as Dr. not Mr., but you sir, can address me as Herr Doktor (nat. res.) Musgrave. After 3 years working with radioactive noradrelaine, pertussis toxin and weird carcinogens (then spending 3 years in a radioactive German basement for my postdoc) I deserve it.

        Or at the very least Doctor Musgrave BWAHAHAHAHAHA 🙂

        (weirdly, in Germany, where I did my postdoc, you are legally obliged to use your title, it was an offense to call myself Mr. I never did get used to being Herr Doktor though)

      • Darn, that should have been

        Or at the very least [Fake Eurpean accent] Doctor [SFX: Thunderclap, Lightning Falsh] Musgrave BWAHAHAHAHAHA 🙂 [/fake European Accent ]

      • Thony C, as an Englishman you know MD’s are only called doctors because once upon a time physicians had to have a PhD in theology before being allowed to enroll in medicine.

        Actually they had to have a doctorate in medicine not theology. At the traditional mediaeval university it was only possible to take a doctorate in theology, medicine or law, whereby the latter could be in civil or canonical law. Nearly all the leading Renaissance mathematicians had a doctorate in medicine, the explanation for which is a blog post waiting to be written 😉

        …weirdly, in Germany, where I did my postdoc, you are legally obliged to use your title, it was an offense to call myself Mr. I never did get used to being Herr Doktor though…

        This is indeed correct and in Germany the doctor title is a legal constituent of the holders name. It is also a criminal offence in Germany to call yourself Dr when you have not obtained a doctorate. However what most people don’t realise is that German law only recognises doctoral degrees obtained at German universities. According to the letter of the law somebody with a doctoral degree from a foreign university may not use a Dr title in Germany. There was a minor scandal a couple of years ago as somebody actually brought charges against a very eminent American guest professor at a German university for illegally using a Dr title. The major problem was that the charges were formally correct and could not be simply ignored. In the end it required a ministerial intervention to get the charges withdrawn and a formal apology to the American Government through the ambassador in Berlin to smooth the waves. Unfortunately the law still hasn’t been changed so be careful when you come back to Germany!

  15. bob koepp bob koepp

    VMartin –
    I’ll treat your closing question as if it were posed in seriousness…

    I think it’s fair to say that as our understanding of of natural selection has advanced, most people who have given careful study to the question you pose have concluded that natural selection operates at multiple levels. This message has been widely broadcast during the past quarter century — I’m surprised that you apparently havent heard it.

  16. Brian, you obviously have no idea what I was trying to get at, but I suspect you have no clue about that, either. You wrote:

    I’m not into hagiography as you obviously are. Darwin was a man of his times. Nowhere near perfect, but he was still a good man. The fact that he struggled with the consequences of his theory (which you term psychoses without evidence that he was psychotic) is in no way a failure. Just shows he had a conscience.

    There are several misrepresentations here, not the least the strawman of my “hagiography.” This may settle the viability of revering Darwin above JPII, but that’s not the point. Both have people who literally “revere” them, to varying quality, and both of them approach the celebratory and ignorance of their flaws as humans in the same sanctified manner. Neither of them are treated as people who came up with theories, but are bound to their actions or theories as if they were a part of them. This (like Curie, Newton and Einstein before them) places them in a special category of deed over individual.

    You may not like the favorability of treating JPII in the same manner as Darwin, but I do. Not because I’m against any particular precept of either, but simply because they do bear similarities. Your supposition that my reference to Darwin’s psychoses referred to his “theories” is ridiculous, but rather than clarify what I may have meant when I referred to Darwin’s issues, you somehow managed to contort it into a screed against his theories, which is false. I study evolution, and its processes, and its products, which would have been apparent to you had you followed the link that is my name in the post you replied to. But you didn’t.

    You committed the same level of hagiography in downgrading JPII for the sake of Darwin, upon which a pedestal is placed, that I argued about. Darwin was a man. His theory was and remains sound. That is all.

  17. Cadra Cadra

    bob koepp.
    Thank you for your answer.

    One of the belovest child of Darwinian natural selectionists is no doubt mimicry.
    Darwinians suppose that “mimics” are somehow protected against their predators. The same should be valid for aposematic poisonous insects.

    Oddly enough many experiments done before let say 1980 often contradicts such notion. There was the greatest research in history around 1910 on Nearctic birds that had been done by the United States Biological Survey and which had taken 45 years. Stomachs of 80.000 birds had been dissected and 237.399 food items had been identified. Ornitologist McAtee summarized these results in his treatise “The Effectiveness in the Nature of the So-Called Protective Adaptations…” (1932) and concluded that protective adaptations have little or no effectiveness. Franz Heikertinger also backed up the same idea by a research done by Csiki in Hungary 1905-1915 on 2.523 birds. As far as I know Darwinians never made such experimental research.

    Poulton and other selectionists were very unhappy about this McAtee research, but maintain that “natural selection” is the only force behind mimicry neverthenless. Without any experiment they posited “intraspecies competion” and continued with their experiments with stressed birds in cages. Such experiments darwinists perform even nowadays to support validity of their world-view.

    I wrote about in in my blog entry “Franz Heikertinger’s rejection of natural selection.”

  18. Peter Eklund Peter Eklund

    A good read. When I saw the title “I’m sick of Darwin” I was initially worried but having read the article I have to admit that’s precisely what you’re complaining about. Darwin isn’t a magical science-savior and wasn’t even that interesting compared to, say, Tesla. We really should get back to teaching biology instead of Darwin-Darwin.

    • Pah! Telsa, a mere raconteur. Darwin was a multifaceted man who simultaneously worked for a better society as well as advancing science in a number of fields. What did Telsa ever do for geology eh? (let alone anatomy biogeography, ecology etc.)

      The older Darwin who rarely strayed out of Down House while performing complex microscopic dissections, or numerous breeding experiments, or raising weird carnivorous plants may not be personally so exciting, but the poncho clad, cheroot smoking young man who rode across the pampas sleeping rough, eyeing off the pretty senoritas, now that’s a different Darwin again.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        And don’t get me started on that plagiarist Edison.

  19. Sam C Sam C

    Peter Eklund (and similar comments by others):

    We really should get back to teaching biology instead of Darwin-Darwin.

    I studied biology at university in the UK in the 1970s, including modules specifically about evolution and population genetics, but Charles Darwin was hardly mentioned. There was no expectation that students should read anything written by Darwin. I think he was treated in the same way as (say) Newton would be physicists or (say) Gauss by mathematicians – interesting in a history-of-science way, but of marginal interest when studying the current state of the subject.

    Did that change in following years so that Darwin got bigged up? Or has it always been different in other countries and other institutions?

    I certainly agree with Dobzhansky’s view that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, but most biologists and naturalists do good biology (especially fieldwork) without considering evolution at all from day to day. A bird’s still a bird regardless of whether it’s related more closely to a crocodile or a platypus. So I don’t think biologists need to be banging on about Charles Darwin hour after hour, day after day.

    Of course, Downe House is definitely a must see for anybody with any interest in biology or science generally who happens to be in the south-east of England! And I think it’s good for all scientists to have some knowledge of the history of their subject, even if the value of a whiggish approach is arguable.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I have the impression that Darwin gets “bigged up” as you put it every fifty or so years at the sesquicentenaries of his birth and the publication of the Origin, generating an industry that persists for a while afterwards. Since 1959 a Darwin industry overtook the focus of history and philosophy of science on physics, leading to my field (HPS of biology). But then we discovered that biology was much bigger than Darwin.

  20. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    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.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I concur completely.

  21. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    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.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      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.

      • John Harshman John Harshman

        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.

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          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).

      • John Harshman John Harshman

        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.

  22. Jeb Jeb

    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.

  23. 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)

    • “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).

      • Jeb Jeb

        “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.

    • 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.

  24. Jeb Jeb

    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… 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.

  25. Anthony McCarthy Anthony McCarthy

    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.

  26. tower tower

    A pretentious biologist. Oh my goodness, this is new!

  27. Jeb Jeb

    “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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