Published in Tribune, 21 November 2008
SOME people carry symbols of Christ around with them everywhere they go, as a profession of their faith. Most of us, even if we are only dimly aware of it, carry around images of Charles Darwin with us – his portrait gracing the £10 note. Many will use these £10 notes to pay the entrance fee to the Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition that opened last Friday and closes on April 19 next year, which is, no coincidence, his 200th birthday.
But there was a strange note of dissent at the exhibition’s opening. Steve Jones, a worldwide authority on genetics and a rather good writer of popular science, pointed out that the picture on the £10 note is bogus. Darwin’s eyes, and the magnifying glass that appears in the artwork, focus on a hummingbird, even though Darwin never studied them.
A more interesting question is why Jones, a professor of genetics, is an expert on Darwin at all. Not only did Darwin not know the laws of genetics, he actually wrote a long volume, now forgotten, proposing an alternative theory of heredity.
The laws of heredity, the foundation stone of genetics, were discovered by Darwin’s contemporary, Gregor Mendel, and largely ignored until long after both men were dead. When they were rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century, far from being seen as a confirmation of Darwinian evolution, Mendel’s laws were thought to contradict it.
Only much later were evolution and genetics reconciled in the new field of population genetics. In truth, modern biology owes as much to Ronald Fisher, Sergey Chetverikov, Theodosius Dobzhansky and other biologists of the early 20th century as it does to Darwin and Mendel – yet their faces don’t appear on bank notes.
The fascinating question is just why Darwin’s name and reputation has continued to be attached to our theories of life, even though modern theories are only distantly related to Darwin’s work. It’s not enough to say that our current understanding has, to coin an unfortunate phrase, evolved from Darwin’s Origin of Species. Apart from anything, it’s not strictly true. Nor does the argument that modern theories are essentially the same as Darwin’s work – and Jones’ Almost Like A Whale proves it.
Jones’s book is ostensibly based on Darwin’s Origin. It uses the same chapter titles, the same table of contents, reproduces the conclusions from each of Darwin’s chapters and even takes its odd-sounding title from Darwin’s work (the Origin describes a bear swimming in a lake with its mouth wide open “thus catching, almost like a whale, insects in the water” – his point being that apparently unrelated species can evolve similar behaviour, and, perhaps evolve into similar forms). The book is marketed as “The Origin of Species, Updated”.
However, the most curious thing about Jones’s book isn’t how similar it is to the Origin, but, given the conscious mirroring of Darwin’s structure and subject, just how different it is. It’s not only a matter of the style being separated by 150 years of change in English usage, nor is it that the intended readership is different (Darwin’s book, in common with much science writing at the time, was directed at a general audience as much as a scientific one). It’s that the content itself is so totally different. Most of Jones’s book is on genetics (for my money, it’s one of the best popular works on the subject), and a great deal of it is on viruses, neither of which had even been discovered when the Origin was published.
Steve Jones uses Darwin’s work and reputation as a starting point for his book, even though it isn’t that similar. The £10 note uses Darwin as an excuse for the designer’s taste for hummingbirds, even though Darwin didn’t study them. Businessmen use Darwin as a metaphor for the free market, even though Darwin was inspired by economic theory, not vice versa. Biologists to this day still argue over which theory is the truer reflection of Darwin’s theory, even though 150 years of discoveries mean the science is a very different beast from that of 1859. And, of course, the Natural History Museum is using Darwin’s birthday as a marketing tool for its exhibition.
Science, like every discipline, has its foundation myths and heroes. It all starts to make sense when seen in the light suggested by one of my old lecturers when I was at university. He proposed that the constant reference back to Darwin today could be explained in terms of competing claims on Darwin’s legacy. The benefit of being the keeper of the Darwinian flame is, he argued, useful partly as a prestigious link back to a scientific hero, and partly as a way of suppressing unseemly disputes in the present. Why argue over who has discovered a new phenomenon if everyone can agree that it goes back, however tenuously, to Darwin?
And so it is that the theory which has done more than any other to undermine religious myths of creation has ended up with a creation myth of its own – and the apotheosis of its founder. Nice work.
J0hn S Wilkins comments:
Darwin did not study hummingbirds… much. But he did study them. He collected several specimens (which I have seen in the Melbourne museum) and both his field notebook and his “big species book” refer to them. Granted, it was not one of the main topics of his work, but it is not true that he didn’t work on them at all.My response:
I stand corrected, I wasn’t aware of that.
To be fair, though he barely talks about them - they’re mentioned just once in the Origin and once in the Variation (neither time as anything more than a passing reference).
For comparison, pigeons (which he did base his theories on) get 112 mentions in the Origin and a further 934 mentions in the Variation.
Even if I wasn’t quite right on the detail, I think my point about the appropriation of Darwin’s legacy and his elevation into a symbol of something much broader than he would have recognised stands. You’re welcome to disagree with that too of course!