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Darwin’s cathedral

By Hiram Caton - posted Thursday, 23 February 2006


On Charles Darwin’s passing in 1882, influential friends intervened to thwart his wish to be buried in a humble coffin in his parish. Such an interment, they felt, would deprive England of the privilege of honouring one of its great men. So it was that the professed agnostic was buried with high ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Canon Frederic Farrar’s eulogy assured his countrymen that the views of the deceased did not menace the Crown with the boisterous materialism promoted in the free thought press. Darwin’s life-long service to his parish, and his occasional acknowledgement of the Creator, proved his loyalty to Britain’s noble values.

This adroit evasion was not the beginning of the Darwin legend, but it was a landmark in his sanctification as the presiding spirit of scientific enlightenment. Signs abound that the celebration of his bicentennial will reverberate with new hymns and hosannas. Indeed, it has already begun with the opening of the lavish Darwin Exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in November last year. In June the exhibition will move successively to Boston, Chicago, and Toronto before finally opening in the London Natural History Museum in time for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 2009. A quality online version of the exhibition is accessible at www.amnh.org.

The print media are also in the stream. In conjunction with the exhibition opening, leading science publisher W.W. Norton issued two beautifully produced volumes. One is by the exhibition’s curator and innovative evolution scientist, Niles Eldredge, Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life. The second is the issue of four of Darwin’s publications under a single cover. This massive tome, From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, is beautifully done with no cost spared on typography, layout, and graphics. Norton recruited the world’s most honored naturalist, Edward O. Wilson, to serve as editor and to write glosses on the “four great books of Charles Darwin”.

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The hosannas of these distinguished scientists provoke awe and adulation. We learn that the Origin is the “greatest scientific book of all time” that “fully explained” the struggle for existence (Wilson). The Voyage of the Beagle “is today regarded as intellectually the most important travel book of all time” (Wilson). Darwin “demonstrated without a shadow of doubt that life evolved”; “no idea in science has shaken society so much as evolution”; “Darwin did more to secularise the Western world than any other single thinker” (Eldredge).

The sanctification continues: Darwin revolutionised the biology of his day; he fashioned a new concept of humankind; he challenged basic philosophical and religious ideas about the nature and meaning of life; so profound was his insight that his thought remains relevant to contemporary biology. These surpassing achievements brought a “revolution” equal in importance to the Copernican revolution. Smitten with reverence, my eye falls on the dust jacket to contemplate the photo of the dignified aged Darwin: yes, he looks like a prophet!

As is wont with preaching, no evidence for this litany is offered: evidence implies evaluation and critical scrutiny. But outside the cathedral, old habits disturb my rapture. What grading system ranks Origin as the greatest book in science? What titles were runners-up? What were those signal discoveries that transformed the biological sciences of his day? What was his new concept of humankind? Did it support the actively canvassed universal suffrage and gender equality? What was the secularising element of Darwin’s thought, and how did it relate to the well-established influence of irreligion, industrialisation, engineering marvels, the free press, socialism, positivism, and the notorious laissez-faire doctrine of survival of the fittest?

These questions are not asked because answering them requires returning Darwin to his context, where the Legend’s claims are readily seen to be baseless. Darwin’s secularising influence is said to stem from his rebuttal of the creationist explanation in natural history. But the refutation was largely redundant. Secularisation was deeply entrenched before his birth (his grandfather Erasmus Darwin was an energetic secularist, as were utilitarians, free thinkers, and socialists): by 1860 it had achieved a massive base, including important elements of the Anglican clergy.

As for the sciences, they had been purged of non-mechanical causality long before. Only Darwin’s fellow naturalists, many of whom were clergy, continued to invoke divine causality. The voyage of the Beagle was one among many explorations. It isn’t obviously superior to those that came before or after. The Challenger expedition of 1880, for example, was an oceanographic survey whose results were published in 50 volumes, including, incidentally, a refutation of Darwin’s theory of the origin of coral reefs.

The most grotesque distortion is the claim that Darwin’s discoveries reformed the biological sciences of his day. The reality: Darwin’s science was in the amateur mode of the naturalist, whereas the physical and biological sciences had shifted into the precision instrument mode of the modern laboratory. This difference was well established in the public mind.

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Real science was the sort of thing that Lord Kelvin, the maestro of the transatlantic cable and of the physics of the steam engine, did. In the biological sciences, the hero was Louis Pasteur, the conqueror of infectious agents and epidemics. The focus of those sciences was cellular biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and neurology, using constantly innovating experimental equipment and processes. They poured forth a stream of practical and profitable innovations, the most celebrated being vaccination, which was made legally obligatory in most European countries.

Darwin the country gentleman was in complete disconnect with this world. His measuring tool was a seven-foot ruler calibrated by the village carpenter, and his microscope was an ancient Smith and Beck model of low resolution. He had no instruments for measuring speed or for reducing tissue to smallest parts. He felt no need to acquire up-to-date equipment, whose cost he reproached, despite his great wealth.

The contrast might be put this way. Darwin made no discovery of Nobel Prize caliber, whereas Louis Pasteur made two such discoveries. Or more tellingly perhaps, when Darwin’s son Francis wished to pursue advanced botanical research, he migrated to a high-tech institute in Germany. There he learned first hand that his father’s science was amateur.

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About the Author

Hiram Caton is a former professor of politics and history at Griffith University in Queensland and an associate of the US National Centre for Science Education. He is working on a book titled Evolution in the Century of Progress. He can be contacted at hcaton2@bigpond.net.au. His Darwin research can be accessed at his website www.darwin-legend.org, and his evolution research at www.whither-progress.org/pages/evolution.php.

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