The Sciences

Why We Celebrate Darwin

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNov 3, 2009 1:12 AM

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In the history of science class I'm taking at Harvard--Steven Shapin's HISTSCI 100--we are doing Darwin. For me, it is doing Darwin again. I have read The Origin of Species numerous times. I have read several of Darwin's other works as well. I have read many of the letters, several bios, numerous scholarly papers, and so on. I have taken several classes in which Darwin has been taught and assigned. Darwin Darwin Darwin. The Origin of Species is one of the most brilliant books every written. It has been picked over and studied so much, there is scarcely anything new that one can say about it--although with its 150 year anniversary coming up, on November 24, surely many will try. Yesterday, trying to think about Darwin a bit differently than I had before, I was struck by Shapin's reference to him as a "secular saint." Indeed, there are apparently (Shapin said, I haven't looked) well over 1,000 Darwin celebrations coming up this November. Which inspires me to ask:

How is this possible? Why does this happen? Is there any other historic scientist that we celebrate nearly as much? And is it merely because of Darwin's most famous theory on a scientific level, or is it something more than that? I think Darwin means far, far more to us than anything his science, alone, can convey. He epitomizes something else, and I want to hazard that it is the following: A secular worldview, and moreover, a way to live a good scientific, or science-focused, life. What is the Darwinian version of the good life? Well, let's look at how he lived it. This is a guy who, alongside his more famous episodes in big think (The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man), fastidiously studied earthworms, barnacles, and orchids; was a pigeon fancier and loved collecting beetles; and sat in his study virtually every day for 40 years and fiddled, coming up with bizarre experiments regarding, say, whether a seed shat through a bird will still be able to germinate, as reported in the Origin:

I forced many kinds of seeds into the stomachs of dead fish, and then gave their bodies to fishing-eagles, storks, and pelicans; these birds, after an interval of many hours, either rejected the seeds in pellets or passed them in their excrement; and several of these seeds retained the power of germination. Certain seeds, however, were always killed by this process.

(That passage always makes me crack up.) Through his life and how he spent it, then, it seems to me that Darwin embodies a worldview and a set of values which say something like the following: Not only is religion not particularly important to my life, but what is important is reveling in the complexity of nature, most emphatically including the smallest and meanest and most measly things--Darwin's barnacles, E.O. Wilson's ants, the tiny freshwater microorganisms of my grandfather Gerald Cole's research. And it is in the value judgment of saying that these things matter, that one should be gloriously nerdy and study them, and that in fact, this is an exceedingly worthy task for a human being, that Darwin becomes our epitome and our model. Or to put it another way, Darwin's unforgettably undramatic, and yet vividly recorded life, tells us is that it's a good thing to be a scientist who studies "all things great and small" (Shapin invoked the hymn), even if they're tiny and nasty and certainly not intelligently designed--because the amazing and the wonderful can now to be found in what a secular process created, and the satisfaction of understanding that. To be sure, there were naturalists who exulted in the intricacies of life, in a markedly aesthetic way, long before Darwin. But were there naturalist heroes, naturalist saints, on a par with this country gentleman? I'm dubious. It is because Darwin merges a secular outloook with the earlier naturalist tradition (which was, previously, heavily theological) that he gives us the modern, scientific set of values. So yes, of course, Darwin was the first to conceive of evolution by natural selection. But he also represents a lifestyle, an aesthetic, and a source of meaning that every life scientist, every birdwatcher, every fossil collector, still carries around today. Darwin isn't just a guy who was brilliant--he's a way of life.

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