Today is Charles Robert Darwin’s 200th birthday. As part of the ongoing Pittsburgh celebration of Darwin’s big bicentennial, distinguished Darwin scholar Janet Browne recently spoke at the Drue Heinz Lectures, and I was able to attend.
Browne gave a thought-provoking talk that focused on the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Victorian England. She provided ample examples of satirical artwork (most of it from Darwin’s personal collection; indeed, Darwin apparently reveled in it) that demonstrated the way the general public viewed Darwin and his theory. Interestingly, Browne described this popular response as “Darwinism beyond the book.” In other words, Darwin’s ideas were popularized and evolved, if you will, into something beyond the natural processes of evolution described in his book On the Origin of Species. Still, it was this popular response, Browne claimed, that helped spread Darwin’s theory and made it “sink in.”
This November 150 years will have passed since the publication of Origin, and Darwin still has a powerful presence in popular culture. In fact, as Browne noted in her lecture, Darwin is now “more famous and more notorious than ever before.” This is especially true in the U.S., where acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is still a minority view, and battles rage on over the use of Darwin’s ideas. In most cases, disdain for Darwin and his theory continue to come from popular interpretations of his work. For instance, it’s not uncommon for people to assume that belief in evolution is synonymous with atheism when in fact Darwin’s work makes no pronouncements about religion, and Darwin himself was agnostic.
If we separate the real man from the popular myths, it becomes obvious why Darwin is worthy of celebration as one of the greatest and most influential thinkers who has ever lived. He had uncanny observational abilities; he was utterly thorough; he was fantasically objective; he was incredibly dedicated; and he was humble. This last trait is perhaps his most famous, and Janet Browne noted that Darwin’s humility helped him write Origin with “a sense of propriety for the views his readers would hold.” This is most obvious in the poetic closing paragraph of Origin, which seems to reach out to readers and say that life is special no matter how we explain it:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”