Why We Celebrate Darwin

By Chris Mooney | November 2, 2009 2:12 pm

In the history of science class I’m taking at Harvard–Steven Shapin’s HISTSCI 100–we are doing Darwin. For me, it is doing Darwin again. I have read The Origin of Species numerous times. I have read several of Darwin’s other works as well. I have read many of the letters, several bios, numerous scholarly papers, and so on. I have taken several classes in which Darwin has been taught and assigned.

Darwin Darwin Darwin.

The Origin of Species is one of the most brilliant books every written. It has been picked over and studied so much, there is scarcely anything new that one can say about it–although with its 150 year anniversary coming up, on November 24, surely many will try.

Yesterday, trying to think about Darwin a bit differently than I had before, I was struck by Shapin’s reference to him as a “secular saint.” Indeed, there are apparently (Shapin said, I haven’t looked) well over 1,000 Darwin celebrations coming up this November. Which inspires me to ask:

How is this possible? Why does this happen? Is there any other historic scientist that we celebrate nearly as much? And is it merely because of Darwin’s most famous theory on a scientific level, or is it something more than that?

I think Darwin means far, far more to us than anything his science, alone, can convey. He epitomizes something else, and I want to hazard that it is the following: A secular worldview, and moreover, a way to live a good scientific, or science-focused, life.

What is the Darwinian version of the good life? Well, let’s look at how he lived it.

This is a guy who, alongside his more famous episodes in big think (The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man), fastidiously studied earthworms, barnacles, and orchids; was a pigeon fancier and loved collecting beetles; and sat in his study virtually every day for 40 years and fiddled, coming up with bizarre experiments regarding, say, whether a seed shat through a bird will still be able to germinate, as reported in the Origin:

I forced many kinds of seeds into the stomachs of dead fish, and then gave their bodies to fishing-eagles, storks, and pelicans; these birds, after an interval of many hours, either rejected the seeds in pellets or passed them in their excrement; and several of these seeds retained the power of germination. Certain seeds, however, were always killed by this process.

(That passage always makes me crack up.)

Through his life and how he spent it, then, it seems to me that Darwin embodies a worldview and a set of values which say something like the following: Not only is religion not particularly important to my life, but what is important is reveling in the complexity of nature, most emphatically including the smallest and meanest and most measly things–Darwin’s barnacles, E.O. Wilson’s ants, the tiny freshwater microorganisms of my grandfather Gerald Cole’s research. And it is in the value judgment of saying that these things matter, that one should be gloriously nerdy and study them, and that in fact, this is an exceedingly worthy task for a human being, that Darwin becomes our epitome and our model.

Or to put it another way, Darwin’s unforgettably undramatic, and yet vividly recorded life, tells us is that it’s a good thing to be a scientist who studies “all things great and small” (Shapin invoked the hymn), even if they’re tiny and nasty and certainly not intelligently designed–because the amazing and the wonderful can now to be found in what a secular process created, and the satisfaction of understanding that.

To be sure, there were naturalists who exulted in the intricacies of life, in a markedly aesthetic way, long before Darwin. But were there naturalist heroes, naturalist saints, on a par with this country gentleman? I’m dubious. It is because Darwin merges a secular outloook with the earlier naturalist tradition (which was, previously, heavily theological) that he gives us the modern, scientific set of values.

So yes, of course, Darwin was the first to conceive of evolution by natural selection. But he also represents a lifestyle, an aesthetic, and a source of meaning that every life scientist, every birdwatcher, every fossil collector, still carries around today. Darwin isn’t just a guy who was brilliant–he’s a way of life.


Comments (15)

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  1. Darwin was one of the greatest minds who ever lived. My two cents penned on his birth anniversary this year.

  2. peter

    Well said, definitely a way of life!!!

  3. Erasmussimo

    The only other scientist who holds anywhere near so large a place in the public mind is Einstein. It is interesting to compare the public view of these two scientists. I think that Einstein is regarded as the smarter of the two; when was the last time you heard somebody say “I’m no Darwin, but I’m smart enough to see what you’re up to.”?

    There is one huge difference between the two: Darwin’s work is readable and understandable to the general public even today. Einstein’s work, however, requires a great deal of training to understand, and his work on general relativity requires a PhD in physics to truly understand.

  4. Anna K.

    Re ‘way of life’ — plenty of notable thinkers have been cruel in their personal lives, but Darwin, in addition to his brilliant mind, also seems to have been a good man in general. He was described as kind, good-humored, and unassuming. He was considerate toward his family, whom he sometimes included in his work. (He asked Emma to play piano to some earthworms so he could see whether or not they were affected by the music, and he got his children involved in an experiment tracking the flight of bees.)

    Secular saint? Maybe so. Certainly an inspiring man on many levels.

  5. Jon

    If it weren’t for two English scientists, Darwin and Isaac Newton, the world we live in today would probably be completely different, in ways that are hard to imagine.

    I ran across an interesting reference to Darwin recently. I was reading Jaime Galbraith’s *Predator State*. He calls Thorstein Veblen’s school of economics “evolutionary economics,” a term I’ve never heard before:


    So anyway, I believe Veblen is the largest single intellectual influence on the New Deal (Keynes came later). Before, I hadn’t thought of Darwin as being so much an influence on Veblen, but apparently so–if people are now calling him an “evolutionary economist” instead of an institutionalist. So anyway, no Darwin, probably no Veblen, no New Deal as we know it.

  6. Chris Mooney

    # 3 Erasmussimo,
    Indeed, but I’ve heard that this popular Einstein work is readable…though I’ve never read it.


  7. Sorbet

    I would say that if one needed to make a choice, Darwin and Newton were probably the two most important scientists who ever lived. Writing in 2000, The Economist stated that the impact of Newton’s work has probably been greater on civilization than the rise and fall of nations. If you think about it, Newtonian mechanics is still perfectly adequate for most daily things, and the Industrial Revolution would have been impossible without it.

    Chris, I would say that Einstein’s book about relativity is not very clear. Einstein was emphatically not a very good teacher. For special relativity (which needs not more than high school algebra) I would refer to Taylor and Wheeler’s book. Apart from that, for a popular treatment of general and special relativity, I think Kip Thorne’s book is hard to beat.

  8. Sorbet

    -“I’m no Darwin, but I’m smart enough to see what you’re up to.”?

    Erasmussimo, some people say that about Feynman though. Apart from Einstein, Feynman is probably the only other twentieth century scientist who was so popular in the public imagination.

  9. Vindrisi

    I don’t recall who said it, but I recall one physicist who read Einstein’s popular book on relativity being quoted as saying something along the lines of “Einstein seems to think that that adding “dear reader” here and there in his technical writing makes his ideas comprehensible to lay readers” in reaction to it. I’ve started and stopped reading that book five or six times, and I am now fairly sure I agree with that assessment.

    Interestingly, Darwin appears to have had low self-esteem, and made a number of self-deprecating assessments of his abilities in his autobiography. It says something nice about the man that he was humble to a fault.

  10. Erasmussimo

    Yes, I’ve read several of Einstein’s attempts at explaining his work, and neither of them was very good. Moreover, he scaled down the subtlety of this work to make it accessible. Darwin didn’t need to write an “Evolution for Dummies” book.

  11. toasterhead

    9. Vindrisi Says:
    November 2nd, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Interestingly, Darwin appears to have had low self-esteem, and made a number of self-deprecating assessments of his abilities in his autobiography. It says something nice about the man that he was humble to a fault.

    I also see a bit of humility in the fact that he waited two decades to publish one of the most important books of all time.

  12. John Kwok

    @ Jon –

    Economics has been the source of ample inspiration for research in evolutionary biology, of which the most notable may be in community ecology, in which economic theory has been applied toward understanding interspecific interactions within ecological communities.

    As for your assessment of Darwin and Newton, I would concur, but especially in Darwin’s case, since he fundamentally altered mankind’s conception of its place within nature with the publication of “On the Origin of Species”.

    @ Chris –

    Hope you have a chance to stop by Harvard University and chat with historian of science Janet Browne, especially when her two volume biography of Darwin is regarded by many as the best, quite possibly, definitive, account.

  13. Sven DiMilo

    “Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.”
    -C. Darwin

  14. gillt

    Erassmussimo: “Darwin didn’t need to write an “Evolution for Dummies” book.”

    Does it really make any sense saying biology from the late 1800s is easier to understand than 20th century physics?

    Of course the field has advanced since then. It’s one thing to read “On the Origin of Speices” and another to read a year old Science review paper on heteropatry.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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