Today, Friday February 12th 2016, is the 207th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Celebrated around the world as ‘Darwin Day’, events across 6 continents from Tel-Aviv to Tokyo will commemorate the English naturalist’s work, explore his legacy, and discuss the current state of affairs in the field of Evolutionary Biology and beyond. Whilst the majority of those attending lectures or participating in events today may do so to simply learn more about Darwin’s work, it is an opportune time to consider more deeply ‘why Darwin?’ Why not Newton, Einstein or Turing Day? Further, are we naïve to presume that such commemorative days are purely about celebrating history and science? Is what on the surface seems like a secular celebration of a historical scientific figure, in danger of alienating those with religious beliefs, and deifying one figure above all others?
The celebration of Darwin’s legacy has a history almost as old as the man himself. In 1909, Darwin’s 100th birthday (Darwin had passed away in 1882) and 50 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, events took place in New York, New Zealand and most notably Cambridge, where over 400 scientists and dignitaries from 167 different countries gathered. By 1909 Darwin’s scientific legacy was still unclear, as his theory of natural selection was not yet widely accepted as the mechanism for evolution. As well as the familiar activities associated with such an academic event, speeches, lectures, and the bestowing of honorary degrees, there was also an exhibition of Darwin memorabilia and his old rooms at Christ’s College were opened to visitors. For more on the 1909 celebrations see John van Wyhe’s overview at Darwin Online.
The 1909 celebrations can be viewed as the culmination of an early process of appropriating Darwin as a hero of science, which grew out of Darwin’s public image in his own lifetime. Bolstered by a slew of early hagiographic biographies, Darwin’s legacy became increasingly about his painstaking and rigorous powers of observation, his trustworthiness and position as a moral exemplar, and his personal scientific and religious beliefs. As the historian of science Bernard Lightman has reflected,
“There was intense interest in Darwin’s private life and personal beliefs, because an understanding of them was considered to be crucial to an understanding of the larger meaning of Darwin’s evolutionary theories.” (Lightman, 2010)
Fast forward 50 years to 1959, the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s birth (that’s 150 years) and the centenary of Origin’s publication: much had changed within the biological sciences. Natural selection was integral to modern biology, Gregor Mendel’s work on hereditability had been rediscovered at the turn of the century, and through the work of the English statistician and biologist R.A. Fisher, Mendelian genetics were combined with Darwin’s theory of natural selection to unite the then disparate branches of biology, bringing together subjects as diverse as molecular biology (then known as cytology), ecology and palaeontology. By the early 1940s this new combined approach to biological evolution had become known as the modern synthesis, a term coined by Julian Huxley, evolutionary biologist and grandson of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley.
Rather than diluting the desire to celebrate Darwin as a stand-alone figure, the centenary of Darwin’s major publication presented an opportunity to frame recent developments in the field. Publicising the modern synthesis and placing it within a progressive narrative of rational advances in scientific understanding would not have been possible without the father-like figure of Charles Darwin.
The 1959 anniversary saw international activities on a scale never before seen for an individual scientist, with events planned from Australia, to Brazil and the Soviet Union. In a break from the previous Darwin anniversaries, the major commemorative event in November 1959 took place at the University of Chicago. Taking place over five days, with 2,500 registered participants and a complete academic and public programme, the conference attracted a huge amount of media attention. As historian of science Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis has shown, the 1959 Chicago centennial celebration, “did not directly address the development of Darwin’s ideas or his work.” Rather, the 1959 events were largely about promoting the new unified field of evolutionary biology, ensuring that the US was seen as central in the field, and bringing subjects from beyond the traditional boundaries of scientific endeavour, such as anthropology, into the evolutionary biological project.
“If the celebrations, as a whole, were a success of great magnitude, it was because the evolutionary synthesis, which was well underway, had been a success in unifying evolution and biology. Ultimately, at a deep level, celebrants rejoiced and at the same time reified their own new identities as sons – and, literally, as grandsons of the protagonists of the original story. Hence, Darwin and his life and work held powerful symbolic meaning for postwar evolutionary biologists who were eager to unify, strengthen and promote their new-found community.” (Smocovitis, 1999)
The Chicago centennial celebrations made an important impression on the field of biological evolution, especially in relation to its public profile and the wider world beyond. The exceptional media coverage and publicity the event received, helped to generate enthusiasm for the subject and in turn influenced the growth of historical literature on Darwin’s life, today so pervasive it’s often referred to as the “Darwin Industry” (Smocovitis, 1999). Secondly, the conference had an unexpected influence on a growing group of evangelicals who saw the public coverage of a Darwinian worldview as an affront, and in response began to publish antievolution literature. Perhaps the most famous of all of this literature was Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood published hot on the heels of the conference in 1961. Here we can see a direct effect of Huxley’s widely reported speech (see above) and other content at the conference, which explicitly connected Darwin and evolutionary theory directly to humanist and atheistic world views.
Much like celebrations in 1959, the bicentennial anniversary in 2009 was to be a major event, especially in the United Kingdom where several television series were commissioned (notably David Attenborough’s ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’ and Andrew Marr’s ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’) and a new commemorative two-pound coin was minted. Again the anniversary became about using Darwin to promote scientific endeavour and the continued canonisation as one of the greatest Briton’s of all time. For a list of Darwin related events from 2009 check out Darwin Online.
During years that don’t coincide with a major anniversary in Charles Darwin’s life, events, celebrations and histories are still regularly produced, but are often limited to days such as 12th February and are much more disparate in their co-ordination and focus. Since 2003 attempts have been made to make this somewhat organic and nebulous approach to celebrating Darwin’s legacy on 12th February, into a more formalised event through the non-profit educational corporation known as the ‘Darwin Day Celebration’. Given the history briefly outlined in this post of appropriating Darwin as a figurehead for contemporary concerns, it may come as little surprise to learn that the ‘Darwin Day Celebration’ is in fact supported by the American Humanist Association.
This increasingly dominant framing of evolutionary biology and by misappropriation Darwin himself, as inherently humanist or atheistic, presents a real problem for those of us interested in education, science communication and the popularisation of evolutionary biology. With a large proportion of humanity identifying as religious in one form or another, the atheist appropriation of evolutionary biology, with Darwin as its unelected figurehead, only serves to push millions of people away from learning more about one of the most elegant and beautiful scientific theories ever proposed. Teachers, academics, journalists, television producers, authors – all of us, who are passionate about evolutionary biology and Charles Darwin’s life and work, must approach Darwin Day with some humility, and learn how to celebrate without deifying.