Last week, the albino Australian gorilla and philosopher John S Wilkins and I and a few others took part in a brief Twitter discussion about Charles Darwin. Wilkins, a big fan of Darwin, had apparently had enough: “We just spent 2 yrs on Darwin; can we do modern biology now?” he asked. “Evolution is not a cult of personality,” he added.
The exchange seems to have led to a Wilkins blog post, Darwin Day: Enough already, the main thrust of which was that continuing to talk about [Darwin] leads people to, possibly correctly, think that this is a cult of personality rather than something about the history and nature of science.
Wilkins might be surprised to hear that I agree with many of his sentiments. I feel particularly uncomfortable when people wheel Darwin into modern debates and start speaking on his behalf, quote-mining him in support of whatever particular point they want to make, as if having someone who has been dead for almost 129 years on your side counts for anything much.
But that’s not why I continue to bore the pants off people about Darwin.
Darwin means many things to many people. Which is why, when my mate Fitz and I set up the Friends of Charles Darwin all those years ago to campaign to see Darwin celebrated on a British bank note, we opted for a deliberately vague motto—an amusing pun concocted by Fitz—which any self-professed Darwin groupie could surely embrace: Charlie is my Darwin. And, if Charlie was your Darwin too, you were welcome to join us.
Yes, I am fascinated by modern biology, and I am delighted that so much of what Darwin wrote still holds true and is re-enforced every day by new discoveries in the natural world. But the world has moved on, and we now know far more about evolution than Darwin could ever have dreamt. Wilkins is right, the research programme began with Darwin; it didn’t finish with him. And nobody would have been more delighted about this than Darwin.
But modern biology isn’t why I continue to bore the pants off people about Darwin. Nor is philosophy. And it certainly isn’t Bible-bashing. In fact, Wilkins put it best in the opening sentence of his post:
I love studying about Darwin and his life and times.
Isn’t that good enough reason for studying Darwin and his life and times? And for boring the pants off people about him? Can’t we be interested in Darwin for his own sake, rather than for what he might tell us about the history and nature of science? Others have soccer or cars or Justin Bieber (no, me neither); but Charlie is my Darwin, and, if I’m boring that pants off you about him, well, that’s just what I do.