The Darwin Exhibition constructed for the American Museum of Natural History has received many accolades. However, are people getting the Darwin of history, or are they being presented with a cardboard Darwin, constructed by people who have a particular agenda? It is worth asking this question, because it has happened many times before. For example, the "warfare thesis" between science and Christianity was the invention of Thomas Huxley and his allies. Theirs was not a fair view of history and they had the agenda of shifting the power base in society from 'the Church' to the scientific elite.
Unfortunately, Darwin has become an iconic figure for many people. This has emerged in recent discussions regarding the teaching of evolution in schools: any criticism of Darwin's theory has been interpreted as an assault on science. This is a deplorable state of affairs. Any serious educationalist ought to be encouraging students to think critically, and it is good scholarship to examine arguments for and against any theory. Hiram Caton has contributed a worthy critique of the new exhibition. Particularly welcome is his recognition that there was serious scientific criticism of Darwin's theory. "The Exhibition promotes an extreme version the triumphalist legend. Viewers are told that the Origin of Species caused a sensation, not only in Britain but around the world [. . .]. It is well established that while evolution was widely accepted by 1870, natural selection was not widely accepted among scientists; [. . .] Darwin's scientific apologists made serious criticisms."
We are fast approaching the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. The indications are that the hype will increase and peak in 2009. What we must not do is allow the myth-makers an easy ride.
Getting Our History Right: Six Errors about Darwin and His Influence
Evolutionary Psychology, 2007. 5(1): 52-69
Abstract: The Darwin Exhibition created by the American Museum of Natural History is the centerpiece of the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. It opened in November 2005 and will circulate to a number of museums before terminating at the London Natural History Museum in February 2009. The Exhibition is also a major contributor to online instruction about evolution for schools. The quality of the Exhibition's narrative is accordingly of some significance. This paper argues that the narrative is the legendary history that dominates public opinion. The legend has been thoroughly disassembled by historical research over recent decades. My criticism is organized as six theses. (1) Publication of the Origin was not a sudden ("revolutionary") interruption of Victorian society's confident belief in the traditional theological world-view. (2) The Origin did not "revolutionize" the biological sciences by removing the creationist premise or introducing new principles. (3) The Origin did not revolutionize Victorian public opinion. The public considered Darwin and Spencer to be teaching the same lesson, known today as "Social Darwinism", which, though fashionable, never achieved dominance. (4) Many biologists expressed significant disagreements with Darwin's principles. (5) Darwin made little or no contribution to the renovation of theology. His public statements on Providence were inconsistent and the liberal reform of theology was well advanced by 1850. (6) The so-called "Darwinian revolution" was, at the public opinion level, the fashion of laissez-faire economic beliefs backed by Darwin and Spencer's inclusion of the living world in the economic paradigm.
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