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Was Darwin overrated?

In Biology on February 15, 2009 at 2:06 am

Watch John Horgan and Carl Zimmer, preeminent science journalists, gab about Darwin (his birthday was Thursday.) Darwin as Hollywood star, horizontal evolution, rethinking the tree of life, group selection — it’s all good.

As for whether Darwin is overrated, there are a couple ways of looking at it. You can focus on his contemporaries and predecessors, and note that he wasn’t alone in thinking about evolution: there was traveling naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose observations about the geographic distribution of species led him to theorize about the divergence of species, and whose correspondence heavily influenced Darwin’s Origin of Species. The idea that species change over time was advanced by Robert Grant, who saw a progression in fossil animals; Robert Chambers, author of the popular-science bestseller Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation; and Charles’ grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who hypothesized that all life had a common origin. You could argue that Darwin worked in a ferment of ideas about life’s origins and variation, that he was not alone. It’s a useful perspective. Scientists are rarely lone geniuses, even if they are geniuses — they collaborate, borrow, and bicker like everybody else.

Does that make Darwin overrated? I don’t think so. He did, after all, put forward the theory of natural selection as we now know it. Vestiges was a vast, mystical treatment of the origins of the universe (complete with some racial theorizing unsavory to contemporary eyes); Origin was a cautious work, anticipating every counterargument, bolstered with pages of evidence about pigeon breeding. Darwin made evolution a subject of scientific study.

He’s also a profoundly appealing figure. Unlike, say, Newton (combative, paranoid, devoted to his alchemy), Darwin the man was genuinely likeable. He had something of the attitude of the humble, persistent noodler. He measured armadillo fossils in the Galapagos, and thought it was odd that they resembled (but were not identical to) the armadillos his expedition was roasting for dinner over the campfire. He was a rigorous observer, but he also had a useful aimless curiosity. He was an abolitionist and a loving husband and father. We can sympathize with the loss of his daughter and his doubts about the theory of evolution. If we want to put a human face on science, we could do worse than Darwin.

  1. While Darwin is perhaps more influential than Newton (simply because everybody has an opinion about natural selection or “evolution”) Newton’s work is far more revolutionary than Darwin’s work. I am convinced that if it not for Darwin, somebody else would have observed natural selection.
    However, its unimaginable to me how one man could have discovered laws of inertia and theory of gravitation and also have the ingeniousness to develop whole new mathematics to study such non trivial problems. I think we can safely excuse Newton for is paranoia and combativeness or alchemy and the belief of god.

  2. […] 15, 2009 by emergentspace Science and Society had a post on Darwin which I more or less agree with. However, I just want to make some distinction […]

  3. Of course I don’t mean to denigrate Newton. Newton could be said to have founded science. And I feel silly about the whole debate of who was the greater scientist (Woody Allen: “Have it your way! So the Atlantic is the greater ocean!)

    I was trying to make the point that Darwin the man was likable, that he seems to be one of us, in a way that Newton and some others (Cavendish, Watson and Crick) never did. Darwin — much like Einstein, the other scientist who regularly gets made into action figures and plush dolls — was funny and nice, and that contributes understandably to his cult of personality.

    When people think of evolution, they think of a sad, kind man with a big beard. Now maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they should see fossils and viruses and phylogenic trees. But Darwin resonates, and I’m inclined to think he deserves his place in the sun.

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