Darwin historian on evolutionary road show

Man's place in nature

Survival of the fittest theorists

Dr Jim Endersby, history of science lecturer at the University of Sussex and the editor of a special 150th anniversary edition of On the Origin of Species, has spent the past year giving lectures around the world to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Before he concludes his tour, with talks at the University of Plymouth and the University of Pennsylvania, Jacqui Bealing asked him how interest in one of science's most important figures continues to evolve.

A lot has been said about Darwin this year. What points have you been making about him - and what have been the reactions?

I've been trying to debunk some of the myths around Darwin, which have become ever-more prominent because Darwin has been in the news so much this year. For example, it's still regularly claimed that Darwin was an enemy of religion, or that the Origin somehow 'disproves' Christianity. In reality, Darwin was careful to keep his religious beliefs private, while in public statements such as the Origin he went out of his way to write in a way that allowed people to believe what they wished. For instance, in the first edition of the Origin he wrote about life "having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one". He amended this in later editions to read "breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one." I interpret this as Darwin trying to avoid upsetting people's faith for no good reason. Of course, some of Darwin's contemporaries were nevertheless deeply offended by the Origin, but others saw the book as being quite religious in tone, indeed some Victorian atheists found it too religious. It's a pity that the tedious argument between certain militant atheists and their Creationist opponents has, all-too-predictably, dominated this year. I find it more interesting to look at how people read the Origin in the nineteenth Century and to get a sense of what the book was like before it was so famous. Reactions were much more varied and complicated than today's "God or Darwin" arguments might lead us to expect.

As we come to the end of Darwin's year, how much more about him do we know?

We probably know more about him now, thanks to the publication of his letters, diaries and notebooks, than even his wife knew when he was alive. Much has been written about his family life and the effect of the death of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie.

Knowing so much about his life makes him more human and engaging for contemporary audiences, which is important, but as a result of all the attention Darwin now casts rather a deep shadow over the 19th Century. At times, it seems as if he were the only scientist of the time. It's a little ironic that I have helped deepen this shadow, this year in particular, because my main interest is in Joseph Hooker, one of nineteenth-century Britain's greatest botanists, but a figure who is only ever mentioned because he was one of Darwin's closest friends.

Why did Darwin, rather earlier scientists, come up with the theory of evolution?

Several thinkers did come up with the idea first, not least his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. But Darwin's fame is as much to do with when and how he published it as to with the theory itself. Darwin's ideas were shaped by Victorian imperialism and industrialisation; the workings of steam-powered capitalism provided him with the key metaphor that underpins his theory, enabling him to think about the process of history and the nature of change. Darwin and his generation believed that competition was a beneficial and inevitable aspect of society. Nations, businesses and individuals had to adapt and change in a competing world, otherwise they perished. Darwin effectively described nature as a perfectly efficient free market, which led to improved products, better organisms. One reason so many Victorians were willing to accept Darwin's views about evolution was that he talked about the triumph of 'superior races' at a time when Britain ruled the world. It was absolutely the right time for Darwin both to formulate this conclusion and to announce it to the British.

But what if one of his contemporaries had reached the same conclusion? How would that have shaped the subsequent history?

It's true that Alfred Russel Wallace reached almost the same conclusions at exactly the same time. One reason Darwin is so much better known than Wallace was that the money, and thus the time, to write a big, persuasive book like the Origin. And of course, Darwin was already recognised as a gentleman of science and accepted by the scientific establishment. He was also careful and respectful of the mood of the nation in how he presented his work. He didn't want to upset the religious.

If Wallace had announced his theory first, history might have been quite different. Wallace, a man of humble beginnings, was a socialist and a believer in land nationalisation. His version of evolution might well have appealed to a more political radical group than Darwin's, which could have led to its being rejected by capitalist societies as crackpot and dangerous. Imagine a world in which the USA and its biologists had rejected "Wallacism" as dangerous nonsense, but where the infant Soviet Union had taken it up enthusiastically; biology, arguably the most influential science in the world today, might have been dominated by Russian scientists instead of Western ones over the last hundred years. The centres of scientific power and influence, and arguably the whole world, would look very different.

I am a consultant for a BBC television series next year about the history of science and what we hope to get people to understand is the vital connection between history and science. For example, history shapes science - Victorian capitalism inspired Darwin - and then science shapes the world.


Will interest in Darwin die down after this?

There are more Darwin anniversaries to come, such as the famous clash over Darwinism between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley 150 years ago in Oxford. And both the Creationists and atheists will continue to generate more heat than light. But I hope that this year will inspire more people to actually read On the Origin of Species rather than base their opinions on what they imagine it says. It is a wonderful piece of writing. The best result of all would be if the Darwin year encouraged more people to think of the history of science not as a slightly obscure specialisation, but as a central part of all of history. Darwin's story is only one of many in the history of science; the others may be less-well-known but they're equally fascinating. Personally, I'm looking forward to a break from Darwin and the chance to tell some of those other stories.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 19 October 2009