Trust in Darwin?

It’s the beginning of the academic year, which means students – hundreds of them, with their haircuts and their baggy skinny jeans and their enthusiasm. Indeed, I’ve just seen one of our zoology undergrads in a ‘Trust in Darwin’ T-Shirt, which reminded me of the uneasy feeling I occasionally felt during last year’s Darwinfest – the dual anniversary of the birth of a great man, and of the publication of his seminal work 50 years later. Let me explain. I would never dispute Darwin’s exceptional qualities, difficult though they are to pin down. For instance, last autumn I saw Jim Moore, co-author of Darwin’s Sacred Cause, present his thesis that Darwin drew his motivation from his moral drive, and that his firm abolitionist stance was key in the development of his ideas of a single family of all human races (and by extension all of life).

I found this a pretty convincing argument; just as, a few weeks before, I had been convinced by Phil Rainbow from the Natural History Museum, who had argued Darwin’s painstaking study of barnacles – culminating in a series of monographs that are still widely consulted – was the real making of him. Surely, studying repeated patterns in the morphology of these atypical crustaceans might easily have stimulated his thoughts on common descent?

In the end, I concluded that what made Darwin exceptional was in fact this combination of qualities – the zeal of the moral crusader, the patience of the brilliant natural historian, the analytical mindset of the natural born scientist. He had the good fortune to be an educated gentleman during a particularly receptive period for new ideas, but his skills, insight and dedication turned these advantages into a series of works of global significance.

So clearly, it is right to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin. But the whole ‘Trust in Darwin’ thing concerns me, and seems indicative of the continued conflation in many peoples’ minds of man and his oeuvre with the entire science of evolutionary biology. This is evident wherever creationists venture, using ‘Darwinist’ as a term of abuse, and gleefully pointing out errors or inconsistencies in Darwin’s 150 year old work. Personally I don’t think this is helped by the kind of reverence in which Darwin is held by a certain vintage of evolutionary biologist – you know, the middle-aged professor who fancies himself (it is always a him) as an old school Victorian gentleman naturalist.

This is unfortunate because – whisper it – Darwin’s not actually that relevant to the 21st Century student of evolutionary biology. Of course, to put the subject in historical context his works remain invaluable. Likewise, career-defining papers are still occasionally written on the basis of an untested hypothesis dredged from his notebooks. But for an overview of what we know about evolutionary biology, Darwin is probably the last place to look. Skip along the library shelf just a little bit, and you’d find the book that served me as an undergraduate primer in evolution – Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. There are plenty of others, with Steve Jones’ Almost Like a Whale particularly notable as it copies the structure of On The Origin of Species, simply updating every chapter with over a century of scientific progress.

And this is a crucial point, one that gets lost in an overly fawning appreciation of Darwin. It is a key difference between a scientific viewpoint and a faith-based position. Science allows no room for sentiment, and has no sacred texts. Darwin was brilliant, insightful, but not infrequently plain wrong, for instance on the matter of the mechanism of heredity. It is not heretical to point out these errors, and it is a strength of evolutionary theory that it has constantly, incrementally improved over 150 years.

So while it is right that Darwin’s anniversaries should be celebrated, let’s not fall into the cult of the personality, the fetishisation of his name as something to ‘trust’. We are, after all, supposed to be on the shoulders of giants, looking onwards, not at their feet, looking up.