Content The Darwin Legend  

Hiram Caton

Quadrant Magazine — October 2007, 51 (10): 28-32

Abraham Lincoln Memorial


The Darwin Legend

The year 2009 marks the bicentenary of two great men, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both were born on February 12. Both were inquisitive. Both opposed slavery. Both were evolutionists. And both became social icons. Inscribed over the imposing statue in the Lincoln Memorial are the words: ‘In this Temple , as in the hearts of the people, for whom he saved the Union , the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever'. The Memorial is modelled on the Doric Temple of Zeus. It attracts about 3.5 million visitors a year, mostly non-pagans.

The Lincoln legend was slow in achieving prominence in the American political faith: the Memorial didn't open until 1922. Darwin by contrast enjoyed high status well before his passing, although not high enough to attract knighthood. He anticipated burial at the Downe village church, where he was long a parishioner. His choice of a wooden coffin expressed his modesty (reinforced by a long, humiliating illness), and perhaps also his expectation of the future (his last book was about worms). But his admirers would have none of that. They arranged a high ceremony funeral at the nation's resting place for its most honoured, Westminster Abbey. Darwin 's choice of modesty was respected in that the burial site was marked only by a simple inscription, with no statue, although the coffin was lavish. Thomas Huxley expressed the spirit of his admirers: ‘He found a great truth trodden underfoot, reviled by bigots, and ridiculed by all the world; he lived long enough to see it, chiefly by his own efforts, irrefragably established in science, inseparably incorporated with the common thoughts of men, and only hated and feared by those who would revile, but dare not. What shall a man desire more than this?' We might add: what greater glorification than that?

Lenin's Tomb Icons release clusters of thoughts and feelings in disciples, as Huxley's words evoke admiration for a hero's struggle against militant faith. Religions are prodigious iconographers because icons facilitate mood solidarity. Indeed most groups create icons, as a stroll through a national capital quickly reveals. When times change, the icons change with them. The Lenin icon exemplifies. On his death, the Soviets created the mausoleum adjoining the Kremlin Wall in Red Square to display his corpse. Countless millions have passed through; the great leader was literally worshiped. On his death Joseph Stalin was buried beside Lenin. But Nikita Krushchev's ‘de-Stalinization' re-branded him a tyrant who betrayed Lenin's legacy. His body was removed and buried in an obscure plot outside the Kremlin Wall. During his tenure as President of the Russian Federation , Boris Yeltsin proposed to demolish the Lenin Mausoleum, but the Lenin cult wasn't yet weak enough to let that pass.

1989 TIANANMEN EVENTSComparable observations apply to Beijing 's Tienanmen Square. This immense public space was rendered sacred by many festivals organized to celebrate the teaching of Chairman Mao. But the Square underwent a major iconic transformation during the 1989 protests. Of the many emblems that students created, the most conspicuous was a large replica of the Statue of Liberty. When protracted negotiations failed to produce an acceptable compromise, troops were ordered to clear the Square. As a tank column advanced, a solitary unarmed protester stepped into its path. To the wonder of the millions worldwide, the lead tank stopped! It then turned slightly to pass around him, but the activist again stepped into the tank's path; again the tank stopped. It was an extraordinary episode that became one of freedom's most arresting images. However, the uprising was suppressed, the protesters were labelled ‘traitors', and no emblem or memorial of the event is to be found in Tienanmen Square . Indeed, mere mention of the event is excluded from the media.

The Lincoln Bicentennial Commission was appointed by Congress and the President to inform the public about Lincoln and to honor his deeds. The Memorial underwent a major change of meaning in August, 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered from the steps of the Memorial his ‘I Have a Dream' speech before 250,000 civil rights activists. His words were: ‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”.' About two months later President Kennedy was assassinated, sending the nation into a trauma. Shortly thereafter, Time Magazine named King Man of the Year, and a year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. These events absorbed Lincoln into high aspirations for equality as expressed by King, so that Lincoln and King were symbolically twinned, editing out a century's time difference. The revised symbol pressures the Commission to pretend that Lincoln 's opposition to slavery meant belief in racial equality. Yet Lincoln and the Republicans emphatically rejected racial equality in response to Democrats who attributed that position to him. Equality advocates were the Abolitionists, who forcefully condemned Lincoln 's views on race as mainstream American intolerance, including the military subjection of Amerindians on the frontier. Abolitionists sometimes burned the Constitution as the document prescribing slavery and mocked Lincoln about slavery in the nation's capital. Historians know these awkward facts. But will the Commission's celebrations allow the historical Lincoln sufficient visibility to divide the Lincoln-King icon? Might it not be the appropriate moment to acknowledge that the abolition of slavery was but one step on the nation's long path to the acceptance of affirmative action?

Darwin will be honored on a more modest scale. In the absence of a Parliamentary Commission, the Cambridge University Press is organizing events. The Press, not the University? Yes, even though 2009 marks the 800 th anniversary of its establishment together with the bicentenary of its most celebrated alumnus. The Press has the lead because of its commitment to editing Darwin 's vast correspondence and bringing it online. The Royal Society and other British scientific societies have committed support to Darwin 2009, as it is called, and London 's magnificent Natural History Museum will host the Darwin Exhibition. Yet Darwin is but one of many distinguished scientists and he is not associated with any public benefit, as his contemporary Louis Pasteur is associated with the germ theory of disease. Although the mass media commonly identify evolution with Darwin , this is typical of popular garbles of complicated facts. Pasteur didn't invent the germ theory of disease (let alone vaccination), and Darwin didn't invent the evolution idea. Those attributions flow from the hosannas of personality cults that formed in their lifetimes. Pasteur received France 's highest honor, the Grand Croix of the Legion of Honor, and the Pasteur Institute was established under his direction. He was buried in the Notre Dame Cathedral with great ceremony and an air of superiority to the British.

Another curiosity is that the primary bicentennial testimony, the lavish Darwin Exhibition, was created not in Cambridge but at New York 's American Museum of Natural History. It opened in November, 2005, and migrates to other museums until it comes to rest in London 's Natural History Museum in February, 2009. My initial contact with the Exhibition was its website, whose home page conveys the tale in a short message: Discover the man and the revolutionary theory that changed the course of science and society, and, For 21 years he kept his theory secret. A highlighted tag reads Featuring live Galapagos tortoises, iguana, and frogs! In the background are images of the HMS Beagle and the Galapagos Archipelago. Prominently to the left is the familiar photo portrait of the aged Darwin in his prophet-like mood: remote, yet near; intense, yet detached; suffering, yet serene. As a historian preparing a book on 19 th century evolution, I keenly toured the online Exhibition; six months later I walked the real thing in New York and confirmed my expectation that the online version is an accurate representation. The Exhibition's story is also consistent with the 1959 centenary of the publication of the Origin of Species , hosted by the University of Chicago , and with the 1909 celebration of the golden anniversary of the Origin 's publication. All tout Darwin as an epic hero, ascribing imaginary achievements and glossing over the all-too-human flaws. But there are some differences. Evolution theory in 1909 was in turmoil because cell-based experimental biology had recently discovered an explanation of inheritance inconsistent with Darwin 's speculative inheritance theory. Contributors to the commemorative conference represented this intense conflict and they reached no consensus. Yet in the introductory essay of the book Fifty Years of Darwin , zoologist Edward B. Poulton ignored the conflict to celebrate Darwin 's remarkable command of the fine detail of plants and animals. The Darwin Exhibition duplicates Poulton's evasion—there's no mention of the ‘eclipse of Darwinism' phase of evolution's history. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and the only 19 th century scientist to discover quantitative biological laws, gets no mention. The public are encouraged to believe that contemporary evolutionary theory is just Darwin 's theory extended over an ever-widening domain. In reality it required a major reconstruction, called ‘Neo-Darwinism', that reconciled the Darwin-Mendel conflict with a new tool devised in the 1920s, population genetics.

Darwin 's five year voyage in HMS Beagle is a classic story of the young hero's initiation into knowledge that he will convert into world-changing vision: the evolution of living things by natural selection. The story goes like this. Young Darwin was recommended by his Cambridge mentor as the Beagle 's naturalist. He threw himself into the task, wrote copious notes, and collected many specimens. On the Galapagos Archipelago, he observed that the fauna of similar species varied from island to island. Might the differences be due heritable changes induced by ‘transmutation'? On his return home, a taxonomist confirmed that the differences were indeed species differences. The latent evolution idea distilled into the revolutionary idea on reading Thomas Malthus' celebrated statement affirming the natural necessity the struggle for existence in which the weak and vulnerable perish. The great principle sprang to life, and Darwin commenced his long, secret meditation whose fruit was the Origin of Species.

A story more faithful to fact goes like this. Darwin was exposed to transmutationism at age 18, when he encountered the transmutationist Robert Grant at Edinburgh University . They got on well, probably in part due to Grant's delight in having the grandson of the nation's best known transmutationist, Erasmus Darwin, under his tutelage. His exposure was increased by the library that he took aboard the Beagle . Charles Lyell's freshly published Principles of Geology contained an extensive summary of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory. His library also included the 17-volume transmutationist Dictionnaire classique d'historie naturelle , which, as it happens, used data from island biogeography to argue for adaptive radiation. Whether Darwin 's attention to the biogeography of the Galapagos was informed by the Dictionnaire we don't know, but the priority attributed to Darwin is incorrect. And natural selection? As Darwin tells the story, he didn't derive it as an induction from the Galapagos or other evidence; it came to him as an intuition, or better, a vision of living nature. He needed another two decades to assemble evidence. As he was writing his classic, he learned, to his dismay, that the young naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had hit upon what he judged to be exactly his own prized concept. Uncertain what to do, he passed the challenge to friends, who resolved credit for priority of discovery in his favor. But another challenge emerged only months after the Origin 's publication. A Scottish aboriculturalist, Patrick Matthew, wrote an article pointing out that he had himself published a statement of the ‘natural law of selection' in 1831, the year of the Beagle 's departure. Darwin graciously acknowledged Matthew's priority and included recognition of it in the 3 rd edition of the Origin . The Exhibition makes no mention of this key historical fact. Darwin made natural selection his ‘child' (as he called it), not by discovering it, but by assembling the evidence for and against with a thoroughness that no one else remotely approached. Another detail tarnishes the legend. The claim that Darwin was named the Beagle 's naturalist suggests early confidence in his scientific destiny. The reality is that the Beagle 's naturalist was a physician, Robert McCormick. Darwin was selected by Captain Robert Fitzroy as his gentleman companion. The Admiralty listed him as a ‘supernumerary'; he had no duties and he paid all his costs, including specimen collection. However, McCormick abandoned the Beagle after a year, while the supernumerary quickly matured to a talented naturalist. When Darwin as editor of the numerous studies of the Beagle 's specimens claimed to be the Beagle 's naturalist, only a lawyer might quibble. Captain Fitzroy did not.

One of the core beliefs of the legend is that the Origin suddenly illuminated the living world that until then had been cast in theological shadows. ‘ Origin of Species caused a sensation', the Exhibition claims, ‘not only in Britain but around the world … the book sold out of stores the first day…and in a surprisingly short time, the storm passed—at least for scientists. Evolution by natural selection became part of their language, integral to scientific work' . Natural selection, we are told, is the ‘foundation for all modern biology' and Darwin 'launched modern biological science… evolution by natural selection became part of [biologists'] language, integral to scientific work'. 

Not one of these statements is true. The book that caused a sensation was the anonymously authored Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation , which appeared in 1844. It was a full-scale philosophy insisting on explanation by natural causes alone. It commenced with the origin of the solar system, passed on to the abiotic origin of life, then to the evolution of plants and animals, culminating in the evolution of the human species. It provoked furious denunciations from leading scientists and clergymen, among them geologist Adam Sedgwick predicting ‘ruin and confusion in such a creed', which, if adopted by the lower classes ‘will undermine the whole moral and social fabric'. Yet Vestiges sold well—26,000 copies by 1860. Sedgwick's distress about its corrupting influence was warranted by its popularity not only among workers, but among all classes and even the Queen. It was translated into Dutch and German, and sold briskly in America , where one admirer was Abraham Lincoln. Another admirer was the showman P.T. Barnum, who dazzled his customers by exhibiting the ‘missing link' between humans and apes, ‘Zip the Pinhead' (who in reality was the Afro-American, William Henry Johnson). By the time the Origin appeared, the evolution idea had reached saturation point in England . That is why Darwin 's publisher printed only 1250 copies of the first edition, which did not sell out on the first day in the shops, as the legend boasts. It never became a best seller in Darwin 's lifetime.

Did scientists believe that Darwin had proved his grand thesis of evolution by natural selection? Many eminent living evolutionists who should know better say so unreservedly. Actually the book's real achievement was to re-establish evolution as a serious scientific question and to stimulate a wide-ranging debate about evidence and hard questions. The debate developed into a ‘crisis' of Darwin's theory about 1900 when cellular biology matured to include the inheritance mechanisms, chromosomes and genes. In the intervening years, even the most ardent Darwinians made significant departures from his theory. Thomas Huxley and Francis Galton rejected natural selection. George Romanes claimed that Darwin didn't explain speciation; he devised a new mechanism, ‘physiological selection', to explain it. Alfred Wallace was an ardent proponent of natural selection, except as applied to ourselves. He maintained that our primate origin could not explain the human mind. He had recourse to spiritualism, then in fashion. Gregor Mendel believed that his discovery disproved natural selection by proving the static character of inheritance. No one read Mendel, but the most widely read evolutionists, Ernst Haeckel and Herbert Spencer, agreed with him without knowing it. According to them, natural selection accounted only for the elimination of the unfit; Lamarckism, by contrast, was the engine of novelty. What about ‘modern biology'? Was it launched by Darwin 's discoveries? On the contrary, it flourished decades before the appearance of the Origin . Evolution didn't figure in those investigations because nerves, cells, and infectious pathogens operate in the here and now and on the micro scale. Conversely, Darwin was unacquainted with this literature, whose terminology and experimental method were well ahead of the naturalist's home-grown experiments and speculation. This is abundantly clear by comparing Darwin 's Pangenesis theory of reproduction with the experimental evidence for cell division that culminated in the elucidation of meiosis and mitosis. One of the principal contributors to this development, Oscar Hertwig, published a detailed analysis and refutation of Darwin 's theory. In sum, the Exhibition's statement that the Origin was the ‘foundation' of modern biology is incompatible with any knowledge of it.

The Exhibition's mega-claim is that Darwin 's ‘revolutionary theory' changed ‘society'. This promise of a gripping story unfortunately falls a little flat. There are hints that the launch of secularism and humanist agitation for religious freedom might be intended. Many Darwinians in those days, as today, were aggressive critics of religion and staunch humanists. Yet the Exhibition touts the compatibility of evolution with religion, limiting itself to polite scorn of Intelligent Design and Creationism.

What about Social Darwinism and economic competition? We're told that this concept is a ‘misuse of a purely scientific theory for a completely unscientific purpose'. Today, yes, but the New York Times Darwin obituary declared that ‘ the central principle—his opponents call it a dogma—of Mr. Darwin's system is "natural selection," called by Herbert Spencer "the survival of the fittest," a choice which results inevitably from "the struggle for existence."' The obituary continues with an outline of Social Darwinism. Its practical application was eugenics, which meant optimising the number of the best human types. The Exhibition is silent about eugenics. This is a damning evasion. The fusion of Social Darwinism with eugenics was the most novel idea of social change to emerge from the Darwinian revolution. That three of Darwin 's sons, two of them leading scientists, warmly supported eugenics indicates its respectability. But more to the point, the Museum's long-serving Director, Henry Fairfield Osborn , hosted the 2 nd International Eugenics Congress at the Museum in 1921: the Exhibition ducks its own past. It also avoids coming to grips with the historical conflict with religion. Its roots spring from the Enlightenment and exploded in the French Revolution. The strong wind of 19 th century secularisation blew from many quarters, including Darwinians, feminists, humanists, trade unions, and liberals. But the strongest wind was socialism, since the Soviets instituted the world's first official state atheism. Darwin 's Britain , by contrast, has yet to disestablish the Church of England. This compromising fact is ignored by British atheists today.

What revisions of the standard image of Darwin and Darwinism are warranted by a factual look backward? That the Exhibition is an American creation reflects the fact that the evolution-religion entanglement is largely an American phenomenon of the post-1960s. Moral Majority types are reacting to wholesale secularisation from many sides, most of which have no science component. Madonna's erotic parodies of the Virgin Mary that enchant millions of youth have far greater impact than humanist blogs or protests at Ken Ham's Creation Museum . Best sellers by evolution atheists are small change compared with the massive sweep of the Da Vinci Code —25 million copies in two years! Children respond positively to museum visits, but that's no comparison with their captivation by the magic of Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling's books have sold over 300 million copies, not only in the West but around the world, including ‘communist' China . Add the films, and the impact doubles. It's not to be expected that creationists and evolutionists will abandon their outdated antagonism; it's too much fun. But the bicentennial is an apposite moment to recognize that the antagonism expresses a historical moment of secularism that continues today on a much-reduced scale of importance. Exposing the nonsense of the Creation Museum has less relevance than coming to terms with Hogwarts magic: Darwin can't compete with Harry Potter. This is not to suggest that we discard Darwin as a hero of science and secularisation. Far from it. But since our commitment to rationality obliges us to get it right, let's replace the legendary Darwin by the real man and his times.

Charles Darwin



© 2008