The Friends of Charles Darwin was a name invented for themselves by two Charles Darwin fans on the spur of the moment in the Red Lion public house, Parkgate, Cheshire. Due, perhaps, to the strength of the beer they happened to be drinking at the time (Burton Ale, ABV 4.8), they forget the exact date of this momentous event, but are pretty sure that it must have happened during the 1990s.
The original idea, as they remember it, was to form a self-appointed pressure group, dedicated to gaining Darwin some long-overdue public recognition for his achievements, and to defending his reputation against misrepresentation and unfair criticism in the media. In achieving these goals, they were spectacularly unsuccessful.
With hindsight (and having sobered up a bit), the Friends realised that their second goal—to defend Darwin's reputation against misrepresentation and unfair criticism in the media—was ill-defined, counter-productive and, some would say, plain arrogant: Darwin has many detractors, be they religious fundamentalists, Bible-Belt politicians, or overpaid misologists writing for the Sunday Times. Conversely, Darwin has more than his fair share of embarrassing apostles with utterly stupid theories claiming descent (with varying degrees of modification) from his marvellous work. Why dignify either camp with comment? Furthermore, with so many people holding differing opinions on what Darwin might have said or meant, who were the Friends to appoint themselves official Darwin representatives? If you really want to know what the great man said, read his own words.
The Friends, therefore, decided to concentrate their efforts on a single, realistic goal: to gain Darwin increased public recognition for his achievements.
How best to recognise a great British scientist? It wasn't as if Darwin had never received any recognition—he has been honoured in many ways. But the Friends wanted something special for their hero: something commensurate with his achievements; something whereby the British nation would announce to the world Yes, Charles Darwin was one of ours all right, and we are very proud of him.
There could be only one answer: Darwin had to appear on the back of a British bank note.
In a flurry of activity, the Friends immediately rattled off a letter to the Bank of England, demanding to know why Darwin had never been commemorated on one of the bank's notes. The bank's reply was friendly, but discouraging, and the Friends temporarily lost heart.
Then, in 1999, the Friends, in a rare moment of affluence, discovered that the new Bank of England £50 note celebrated someone they had never heard of. This didn't sound right, so they immediately rattled of a second letter to the Bank of England seeking clarification. The new Chief Cashier's reply (co-incidentally dated five years to the day after her predecessor's original reply) gave some interesting inside information concerning the choice of people to be represented on British bank notes, plus some rather pathetic reasons why Darwin had not been so honoured.
The Friends of Charles Darwin decided that enough was enough. On the 140th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, they fired off a third letter to the Bank of England, marking the start of a new, concerted campaign.
Next: The Campaign Proper »