November 23, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Can’t Wait for Darwin Day

Darwin Day (Feb. 12, 2009) is months away, but Nature devoted a special issue to it this week.  The cover story, Darwin 200, includes 15 articles and features, some of which are available to the public.  Features include a list of celebrations and exhibitions around the world, including a re-enactment of Darwin’s voyage on a “modernized replica” of the HMS Beagle.  The voyage will be a floating field trip beamed to classrooms worldwide.
    The lead Editorial, “Beyond the Origin,” contained the expected creation-bashing and touting of Darwin’s theory as the greatest idea in history, but it ended with a curious theme: synthetic biology will allow the origin of life by intelligent design, though Darwin’s law of natural selection will continue to rule biology. 

By the time the 200th birthday of On the Origin of Species is celebrated, the life under study by science may well no longer be united by common ancestry in the way that all life is today.  In that sense, Darwin’s view of the world will have been superseded.  But whether that life exists around another star or in a bioreactor, it will still evolve, if given leave to, according to the simple and awe-inspiring algorithms of natural selection.
    The essay of Dobzhansky’s quoted earlier bears the now-famous title “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  That is so close to being an analytical truth – a necessary implication of what life itself is – that we can be certain it will continue to be true into the future.  But that certainty in no way limits the diversity and sheer wonder of what we will find on the voyage that Darwin began.

The celebratory euphoria in this editorial was quenched somewhat by another article in the special issue by Janet Browne, historian at Harvard and authority on Darwin.  Although calling Darwin’s theory a “magnificent achievement” offering “remarkable explanatory power for 150 years,” she found some dirty laundry in the political history of Darwinism.1  Noting that “it is worth remembering that scientific anniversaries also provide an opportunity to push an agenda, and even to adapt the past, so telling us what we like best to hear,” Browne revisited prior Darwin celebrations in 1882, 1909 and 1959 to see what happened then.  She found an interesting phenomenon: Darwin celebrations tended to be agenda-driven attempts to shore up a theory in crisis:

  1. 1882:  When Darwin died, his supporters used his “funeral as propaganda.”  Concerned at the time over criticisms that Darwin’s views were hostile to religion, Thomas Huxley and crew hastened to get him buried in Westminster Abbey.  Why?

    The funeral service and many obituaries stressed that Darwin was not an atheist.  He was instead described as a good man, committed to truth and honesty.  This was true, but it was also valuable propaganda at a time when relations between science and religion were intensely fraught.  The men of the Royal Society used Darwin’s funeral as a way to reassure their contemporaries that science was not a threat to moral values, but rather was becoming increasingly important in the modern world.

  2. 1909: The 50th anniversary of the Origin found Darwin’s theory in decline.  New views on genetics, fossils and orthogenesis were undermining his views on gradual change, implying instead a goal-directed path of descent and even teleology.  “The 1909 commemorations, organized by a small group of naturalists and Darwin family members from the University of Cambridge, provided a way to reassert the primacy of natural selection against other evolutionary rivals,” Browne said.
  3. 1959:  The bombastic Darwin Centennial hosted by the University of Chicago in 1959 was another attempt to whitewash Darwin, Browne argued. 

    This Darwin anniversary was held at the University of Chicago in Illinois, in a symposium that pointedly celebrated the integration of genetics and population statistics with selection theory.  Ten years earlier, this integration had almost taken the form of a political treaty.  Putting it bluntly, field naturalists were eager to re-establish their value in an increasingly laboratory-based world.  Prominent naturalists such as Ernst Mayr managed to get geneticists and statisticians to agree that evolution could take place on three levels: in molecules; in the flow of genes through populations; and in the environmental world of organisms undergoing competition and natural selection.  In 1942, Julian Huxley invented the phrase ‘modern synthesis’ to combine genetics with natural selection, and Mayr’s key work within this synthesis, Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist (Columbia Univ. Press), was published.

    In addition, the Darwinites “in effect created modern Darwinism by emphatically rejecting any form of Lamarckism” in the context of the cold war:

    In 1959, socialist Russia had only recently withdrawn from Lamarckism in genetics, and the idea was strongly associated in US minds with the cold-war struggle.  The delegates also rejected the idea that the fossil record shows signs of directed evolution, and expanded Darwinian thought to cover the evolution of mind and behaviour.  During the conference, Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, gave a secular sermon in the style of his grandfather, and provocatively declared that religious belief was merely a biological feature of evolving mankind.

    This was about the same time, contrary to many people’s impressions, that the Darwin Finch story became a prop for evolutionary theory.  Mayr and Huxley had encouraged David Lack to spend time in the Galapagos observing the finches.  “It was only after this … that the finches sketched by Darwin became collectively known as Darwin’s finches, and were held up as the first and most remarkable evidence of evolution in real organisms in a natural setting.

So instead of being spontaneous occasions to appreciate a universally-accepted hero of science, previous Darwin celebrations, Browne argued, were political ploys by advocates with an agenda.  The question becomes, will history repeat itself in 2009?

But biologists will also surely use the occasion, once again, to affirm the truth and elegance of Darwinism in the face of criticism, this time from those who prefer a creationist view of the world.  Evolution by natural selection has suddenly become a highly contentious idea, especially in the United States.  Creationist proponents abound in the US school-board system, opinion polls highlight the public’s belief in a divine origin for humankind, and ideas about intelligent design are widely circulated.  Against this, Darwin has become the figurehead for rational, secular science, and Darwinism the main target of the fundamentalist movement spreading across the globe.  Attacks extend beyond arguments over the Bible.  To criticize Darwinism is a forceful way to express anxieties about the growing power of modern science and the perceived decline of moral values in society.  To try to poke holes in Darwin’s argument is to express dislike not just for evolutionary theory but also for science itself.
    There is some irony in this situation.  Looking back to Darwin’s funeral in 1882, Darwin’s Christian qualities, his stature as a man of truth and honesty, were brought to the fore.  He was celebrated as a man whose religious doubts were an integral part of his wisdom and insight; few critics made personal attacks on his social virtues.  Now, his heroism in modern science is seen by many as an offence to religious values.  It goes to show just how diversely Darwin and his theory have been perceived and used over the years. 

Browne, author also of the award-winning biography Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Princeton, 2002),2 quipped in conclusion, “Darwin himself would surely be amazed by how differently we have chosen to celebrate his anniversaries.”


1.  Janet Browne, “Birthdays to remember,” Nature 456, 324-325 (20 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456324a.  This article requires a subscription.
2.  Search on the keywords “Janet Browne” for quotations from this outstanding book in previous entries.

shed the light all around.

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