1869 portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron on January 1, 1869. Cameron was a ground breaking photographer at the time. She did not start being a photographer until she was middle-aged and received a camera as a birthday gift. She ended up photographing the rock stars of her day including Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. Cameron’s exhibit at The Getty Museum.
One hundred and fifty years ago on a Thursday the 24th November 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. In celebration the American Institute of Biological Sciences has made two articles on Darwin open access. The Darwinian Revelation: Tracing the Origin and Evolution of an Idea
The idea of evolution by natural selection, a central pillar of the biological sciences, might be too easily perceived by modern readers as a monolithic idea grasped more or less at once by Darwin. This notion stems at least in part from Darwin’s own presentation of his theory as a logical whole in the Origin. Darwin’s description of his epochal work as “one long argument” in the opening line of the book’s final chapter has long served as a general guide to the way in which Darwin conceptualized his theory, but the fuller picture of Darwin’s creative process was possible only as his correspondence, notebooks, and other private writings became available for study (Eldredge 2005). Considered from our vantage point 150 years after the Origin’s publication in 1859, telescoped by time, it is often unappreciated that key elements of Darwin’s thinking unfolded over a dozen or more years—with even his central mechanism of species diversification, his “principle of divergence,” not coming to him until well into the 1850s.
Before his and during his voyage on the HMS Beagle it is thought Darwin most probably believed in species fixity. That is that species are not mutable, they do not change over time. So with that in mind its interesting to see how his theory evolved over time. Modern readers of evolution get the benefit of the cut to the punch line. All the pieces come together in such logical steps that some of us might miss how someone could examine the evidence and parse out the steps and history of species changing over the course of time.
Then there is Ten Myths about Charles Darwin
10. Darwin was a confirmed atheist who had a deathbed conversion to Christianity
Like his father and the rest of the males in his family, Darwin had little use for established religions because he thought they were authoritarian and discriminated against those who did not accept them. He was never an outright atheist, however. His statements on religion (Barlow 1958) suggest that he was a deist, like many cultured Englishmen of his time (Wilson 2002) and the American founding fathers (Holmes 2006). That is, he accepted the presence of some kind of Creator, but avoided the words Christ, Savior, or Redeemer. Darwin could not conceive how the universe could have been the result of “blind chance and necessity”; all this must have had a “First Cause” with “an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man” (Barlow 1958). Nevertheless, like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others, Darwin did not identify with any religious denomination in traditional terms. After the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie, he lost his faith in Providence (the idea that everything is divinely ordained for the best), as many have done after similar tragedies. As he grew older, questions of religion simply ceased to interest him (Barlow 1958, Desmond and Moore 1992).
The deathbed conversion story is a myth started by a profiteering woman who never actually met Darwin, as far as can be told (Moore 1994). The legend is still repeated by fundamentalist Christian preachers and radio hosts, which prompted Darwin scholar James Moore to write his book The Darwin Legend.
The names and dates are footnote references. They have links to small pop-up windows at the main link to the original source research. Its not a top ten list so I didn’t give away the funniest or most interesting. This selection struck me as we live in an age where many people are as devoted to rewriting history as writing it. An age where urban myths are true until a brain injury or other traumatic event brings the believer around to accepting a more rational explanation. It’s the age of the Orwellian “fair and balanced”. For those three or four readers that like the philosophy oriented posts I’ll try to get around to the study of knowledge and the why’s and how’s of what we know and how our knowledge of the world will most certainly change. Darwin for instance had no knowledge of genetics and the related phenomenon of mutations. Even once we knew that genetics were the pathway to inherited traits it has not been that long ago that natural selection was still taught in a way that was dismissive of the role of mutations.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” Charles Darwin