In an informative essay, Janet Browne reflects on three Darwin commemorations: his funeral in Westminster Abbey, the 1909 centennial and the 1959 celebration. Each grasped the "opportunity to push an agenda, and even to adapt the past, so telling us what we like best to hear".
Nature's contribution to the anniversary preparations (Darwin 200 index here)
Darwin's religious views became known through his correspondence. He was content to be known as an agnostic and his view of God, if he did exist, was that he is remote from this world. Christian reaction to Darwinism ranged from "it is atheism" (Charles Hodge) to "God guides the process of evolution" (Asa Gray). Opposition to the technicalities of the theory came from contemporary scientists who were not persuaded that Darwin had a strong case. After Darwin's death, several colleagues in the Royal Society lobbied to have him buried in Westminster Abbey. This was to make a statement about Darwinism and faith and also to turn Darwin into an iconic figure. Browne writes that this was:
"valuable propaganda at a time when relations between science and religion were intensely fraught. The men of the Royal Society used Darwin's funeral as a way to reassure their contemporaries that science was not a threat to moral values, but rather was becoming increasingly important in the modern world."
By 1909, genetics was revealing that much of the variation reported by Darwin was innate and this was stimulating fresh thinking about biological change. "Thus, new forms could emerge de novo, without selective pressure and adaptive success." At the same time, palaeontologists were reporting lineages that "progressed" and this seemed to inject teleology back into biology. Darwinism was becoming sidelined.
"The 1909 commemorations, organised by a small group of naturalists and Darwin family members from the University of Cambridge, provided a way to reassert the primacy of natural selection against other evolutionary rivals."
A much bigger event was the celebration of 1959. This was the platform where the architects of the "modern synthesis" asserted their supremacy.
"The delegates at Chicago did more than celebrate a new union of the biological sciences. They in effect created modern Darwinism by emphatically rejecting any form of Lamarkism [. . .] The delegates also rejected the idea that the fossil record shows signs of directed evolution, and expanded Darwinian thought to cover the evolution of mind and behaviour. During the conference, Julian Huxley, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, gave a secular sermon in the style of his grandfather, and provocatively declared that religious belief was merely a biological feature of evolving mankind."
Browne points out that "much of what we know about Darwin and Darwinism, including his celebrity status, is the result of the 1959 celebration in Chicago." This created the illusion of a consensus among biologists, but the reality is that many have serious doubts about the efficacy of natural selection to do what Darwinism claims for it. Many also doubt that gradualism is the way evolution proceeds. But the consensus means that doubting Darwin becomes a serious academic crime, for which the guilty get expelled from positions of influence and sometimes expelled even from being able to pursue a career in science.
Browne asks: "Will [the 2009] activities have a veiled agenda, as did those of the past?" The answer to this question must be an emphatic yes! If you don't want your mind to be manipulated, you had better develop your critical thinking skills. For more on Darwin as an icon, go here.
Birthdays to remember
Nature 456, 324-325 (20 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456324a
Summary: Anniversaries of Charles Darwin's life and work have been used to rewrite and re-energize his theory of natural selection. Janet Browne tracks a century of Darwinian celebrations.
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