The other day I was in London, and - as I have done regularly ever since my grandfather first took me in 1964 - I went to the Natural History Museum. As you walk in, and walk past the 85-ft dipolodocus skeleton that has captivated generations of schoolchildren since it was donated to the museum by Edward VII in 1905, there is a flight of stairs facing you. On the first landing there is a white stone statue of a stern, but kindly looking man, who is reminiscent of one of the guitarists of Z.Z Top. His name is Charles Robert Darwin, and he would have been 200 years old this week. Together with Karl Marx, Mahatma Ghandi, Che Guevara, and John Lennon (and a handfull of others) he unquestionably one of the fathers of contemporary ideology. Not contemporary science? I hear you ask. Whats's he got to do with a couple of Communists, an Indian barrister, and a pop singer?
Of course Darwin is one of the founding fathers of modern science, together with Gregor Mendel, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and the two guys who first discovered how and why DNA works, but he was more than that. His findings have effected the very way we think, and the very structure of the social heirarchies in which we live. No wonder he is revered and reviled in almost equal measure.
So what has he done wrong? Or, depending on which way you look at it, what has he done right?
Darwin came from a distinguished family. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame, and his paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin, was a naturalist who - in many ways - foreshadowed his grandson's most famous discovery by about 60 years. In his 1818 book Zoonomia he wrote "when we observe the essential unity of plan in all warmblooded animals, we are led to conclude that they have been alike produced from a single living filament." It may be archaic language, but it basically stated what his grandson was to become famous for elaborating upon; That all life on Earth is derived or descended from a single common ancestor.
The trouble is, that for thousands of years three of the major religions of the world have believed a very similar thing. The Muslims, the Jews and the Christians, are described by Muslims as Ahl al-Kitāb or The People of the Book because their sacred texts basically have much of the five books of Moses (the Torah or Pentateuch), and the book of Psalms in common. Muslims even revere the Injil which recounts much the same events as do the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament. Followers of these three religions, (and a host of lesser faiths) also believe that all life on Earth derives from a common source: They believe that the omniverse and all that is within it was created by God.
The Book of Genesis (which is common to both Christians and Jews says that God created the Universe in six days, and rested upon the seventh. Whilst the Qu'ran is less linear, and the references to the creation are scattered throughout, it includes the lines "Throned above the waters, he made the heavens and earth in six days." A 17th Century Anglican Bishop of Ireland, using relatively simple mathematics and a well-thumbed copy of the Old Testament calculated that Creation had begun on the night preceeding 23 October 4004 BC. These calculations used The Bible as their base, and as The Bible was the literal word of God then anyone who questioned this data, let alone suggested that it was completely wrong, and that the birds of the air and the beasts of the field had appeared as part of a gradual period of evolution over many millions of years, was guilty of blasphemy.
Not a good career move.
So, when Erasmus Darwin wrote Zoonomia he was treading on thin ice, and when his grandson published his most famous work in 1859, he was rushing headlong into serious trouble. But the ironic thing is that he was not the only, or even the first person to espouse the theory of evolution through natural selection. Like Elvis Presley with rock and roll a century or so later, he just popularised it and became the figurehead for a dangerous new movement.
The irony is that during his younger days Charles had not been particularly impressed with his grandfather's writings, and is described as having been "indifferent" to the similar ideas of a Frenchman called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who was a contemporary of Darwin's grandfather. He studied medicine at university in Edinburgh, but like so many freethinkers before and since he neglected his studies and spent much of his time about his leisure pursuits. His particular leisure pursuits largely involved the popular study of natural history.
His father was annoyed at his neglect of his medical studies, and sent him to Cambridge with the idea of becoming a parson. This time his studies were more successful, and he qualified in 1831. Something which is not widely known is that during his years at Cambridge he became involved in the Natural Theology movement, the precursor to today's Intelligent Design movement; a group of scientists who believe that the diversity of the natural world could be explained by the creator God intervening in nature, by working through his own natural laws.
However, once he qualified he had no idea what to do with his life, and to use modern parlance he was pretty much a drop-out. However, on the recommendation of one of his Natural Theology mentors from university he got the gig of ships naturalist, and a gentleman companion to the captain of HMS Beagle, a navy survey ship and the command of Robert FitzRoy. Again to use modern parlance, Darwin was on subsidised gap year. The journey was planned to go down the coast of South America, round Cape Horn, and back home via Tahiti and Australia. The before it was supposed to last just over two years. Instead it lasted five.
Everywhere he went, the young Darwin found things to interest him. In South America he found fossils of the long lost megafauna. On the Galapagos Islands he found a strange range of remarkably similar species, and noted that although each island had finches and giant tortoises, on each island they were subtly different. In the Cape Verde Islands he studied the complicated stratigraphy and finally came to agree with the people who had used this as supportive evidence for the great age of the earth. In Brazil he saw, for the first time, the dazzling diversity of life in the rainforest. In Tierra del Fuego on the very southernmost tip of South America he came across truly primitive human beings, and in Australia he found a range of mammals so unlike those that lived in the rest of the world that he could hardly believe it.
In 1836 he returned to London a hero, and one of the first scientific celebrities. A pop naturalist, if you will. He worked hard publishing his books and making publicity appearances worthy of a present day pop star, and like so many pop stars he soon succumbed to the pressure, and collapsed with what a modern-day publicist with no doubt describe as nervous exhaustion. These days he would have been banged up in The Priory for a few weeks. In the mid-19th century that just wasn't done, so he went to Scotland to collect fossils, and eventually came back to London and married his cousin.
Over the next few years Darwin became a true polymath studying everything and anything that took his fancy, but more and more he became obsessed with the very nature of biological diversity and its causes. Slowly, due to insights gained from his work in many different fields of zoology he formulated his theory of evolution through natural selection. In 1844 he wrote to the eminent botanist Joseph Hooker that to have come up with the theory that so many people would believe was contrary to the word of God felt like it he was "confessing a murder”. Hooker replied “There may in my opinion have been a series of productions on different spots, & also a gradual change of species. I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject.”
He worked on his magnum opus for years, and took almost too long about it because in 1844 a book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously. It was a massive bestseller and suggested that the whole of Creation had been a long drawn out, gradual process, and just before he went public with his theory in 1858, a fellow scientist called Alfred Russell Wallace shocked him by sending a paper describing the process of natural selection in startlingly similar terms to his own. Eventually the two scientists collaborated on a joint presentation of their two papers to the Royal Society, and in 1859, his book On the Origin of Species was finally published. It became a massive bestseller, and neither Darwin nor science itself was ever the same again. Darwin was lionised to such a degree that when he finally died he was one of only five 19th Century nonroyals to be given a state funeral.
However, strange as it may seem, the controversy over whether what Darwin said counts as blasphemy still rumbles on today, 130 odd years since his death. And this is where I, and many people like me, feel that we as a society are in desperate danger of going horribly wrong.
Now, before we go any further, I want to learn by the mistakes of another one of the seminal fathers of contemporary ideology that I sited at the beginning of this article: John Lennon. In 1966 he was quoted out of context as having said that his band the Beatles "were more popular than God".
This brought him death threats, financial censure, and may even have led indirectly to his death. I don't want to go down the same root. Don't be daft, I hear you say. This is 21st century England - things like that don't happen here. Sadly, they do. Only a week or so ago Sir David Attenborough, doyen of natural history television for half a century or more revealed that he had received death threats because of his support for Darwinism. These death threats come from a peculiar bunch of people called Young Earth Creationists who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, support the late Bishop Ussher in his assertion that the world is only 6000 years old. They must be nutters, I hear you say. I had think that they probably are, but they are influential nutters with powerful friends. So powerful, that if the people of the United States had not shown enough good sense to vote for their current president, the most powerful man in the world would have had, as his deputy, a militant creationist in the shape of Sarah Palin.
This is the point where I don't want to follow in the footsteps of John Lennon, or indeed Sir David A. I am a scientist and author. I have tried to leave my religion and my politics out of my work, but it is no longer really possible to do so. So I must nail my colours to the mast. I am a Christian, and I believe in God. I just don't believe that He created the universe in six days 6000 years ago, or that He has continually intervened in the process of natural selection across the natural world ever since. I see no problem with reconciling my belief in evolution through natural selection, or, indeed, my belief that the universe was created through a Big Bang 13 billion years ago give or take the odd millennium. I merely believe, if I may draw up on a cultural metaphor that nobody who has ever bought a box of fireworks will forget, that the Almighty lit the blue touchpaper. I make no apologies for digressing. I already receive enough e-mails telling me that I am a heathen who will burn forever in a pit of sulphur! And my personal religious views don't really affect the rest of the world, because not only do I have no political power in the world, I have no great desire to get any, and I will never be put in a position where I can have my finger on a little red button that could precipitate Armageddon.
Sarah Palin very nearly did.
And Sarah Palin is a Creationist who believes in the literal truth of The Bible as the Word of God. This doesn't just mean the Book of Genesis, but it also means the Book of Revalation. And, if it hadn't been for the appallingly bad campaign organised on her behalf, a better running mate for President or perhaps the lack of an economic crisis in 2008, Sarah Palin might have been Vice President; a woman with massive global reach and influence. To an extent, her election would have been the result of the same kind of thinking that is anti-science, and anti human progress.
At a time when we are faced with massive economic problems and, it seems, a world that is falling to pieces and where religious and political extremists have all the simplistic messages and mass appeal it is easy for people to be seduced by their message. This means that, in contrast, we have to realise that the universe, and our place in it, might seem mysterious but that it can be quantified and explained in a logical, progressive way of which Darwin, Ghandi, Lennon and fellow thinkers would have been proud.
And the most frightening thing is that even in this country, despite all the incontravertable evidence to the contrary, there are still people who want Creationism – which despite anything they try to tell you is truly nothing but superstition – to be taught as a viable alternative to evolution in schools. And there are people within our own community here in the part of England where the CFZ live who are making that happen. Just put `Creation Biology +Somerset` into Google and see what comes up!
Charles Darwin is 200 years old, and congratulations are not necessarily in order.