The “Father of Biology”

February 19, 2009 at 3:10 pm 4 comments

Historians don’t consider themselves in the business of hero-worship, but for Charles Darwin they almost make an exception. In the 150 years since the publication of the Origin of Species, academia’s “Darwin industry” has spawned libraries full of biographical detail and textual interpretation. Elements of Darwin’s biography have reached the status of legend in the popular imagination: the Beagle voyage, the Galapagos finches, the 20-year wait before publishing, the religious wrangling over the implications of his theory: if you aren’t tired of hearing the story yet, you will be by the end of the year, when Cambridge’s celebrations will have reached their apotheosis and Paul Bettany will be re-enacting Darwin’s life in cinemas. Darwin is the “father” of biology, the exemplary “great scientist.” But what did one man do to earn such epithets?


Individuals vary. Their traits are heritable. Some individuals reproduce more successfully than others, and the traits of these individuals are better represented in the next generation. Over millions of years, by means of “natural selection,” or “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,” species evolve. This is Charles Darwin’s big idea, but, increasingly, it is our idea too: in the hands of a century of popularizers from T.H. Huxley to Richard Dawkins, it has been held aloft as the crowning glory of the Western scientific enterprise, and our best explanation for why we exist.

Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s slogan that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” has become a catchphrase for the contemporary study of life; and this shows how the impact of evolutionary theory extends outside the textbooks—it embodies an ideology of science, the belief that, through constructing mechanistic accounts of the causal history of living things, we shed light on the secrets of the world. In a culture in which the spirit of Enlightenment is tainted with the guilt over what followed, in which science is associated as much with atom bombs and CFCs as with human progress, Darwin’s theory is the case for the defence.

But it would be misleading to think Darwin’s status derives entirely from his idea. Indeed, it’s arguably misleading to call evolutionary theory his idea, though his causal contribution to modern biology is not in doubt. Darwin grew up in a culture where evolution was, so to speak, in the air. In the early decades of the 19th Century, Britain’s genteel community of wealthy scientific enthusiasts dedicated much time and ink to combating the radical French evolutionism of Lamarck and Geoffroy. In 1844, evolutionary controversy exploded in Britain with the anonymous publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an ambitious speculation telling of the progression of life up a chain of being from spontaneously generated simple organisms through to mankind.

The growing fossil evidence of extinct life forms needed an explanation: such theories filled a niche. Darwin did for the study of life what Charles Lyell, his friend and inspiration, had done for geology. Lyell proposed the uniformitarian principle: that the geology we see today is best explained by small, currently-active forces acting over staggeringly long periods of time. When Darwin set off on the Beagle, filled with Romantic dreams of finding unifying laws of nature after reading Alexander von Humboldt’s travelogues, he took Lyell’s book along with him, and took his principle to heart.

Darwin’s theoretical innovation was a not the idea of evolution but a new mechanism for its occurrence. A very speculative mechanism, of course—scientific objections to his theory were warranted and widespread. Why should advantageous traits spread through the population? Wouldn’t they end up diluted, swamped by the prevailing disadvantageous traits? And how did these traits arise at all? And could complex traits really develop like this? The 20th Century culture of laboratory testing and mathematical modelling expanded, quantified and reinforced Darwin’s ideas to answer such questions—it is largely through the work of 1930s scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane and R.A. Fisher that today’s “modern synthesis” theory was born. Darwin is not the author of modern evolutionary theory, and to credit theories to the first person to contribute “significant” work is a dubious practice. So is he really the “father” of biology?

I think so, but not because of his idea. Darwin was venerated long before the notion of natural selection had acquired the widespread acceptance it enjoys today. He was given a state funeral, celebrated as a genius, venerated on his first centenary, largely by people who judged his central hypothesis to be wrong. It was his personal virtues, his fatherly qualities no less, that earned him the reverence he continues to receive. Darwin is portrayed as the iconic “gentleman of science”: wise, moral, conscientious, companionable and modest. And no amount of industrial historical research has disproved the hypothesis that really did live up to these attributes.

When allies like Ernst Haeckel defended natural selection through brash confrontation, Darwin advised them against it. While Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” forcefully took the argument for evolution to its critics, Darwin (for reasons of health and modesty) confined himself to his home at Down, Kent, where he lived with his devoutly Unitarian wife, Emma. When correspondents asked Darwin if his theory was incompatible with Creationism and other Christian beliefs, he gave guarded replies, professing to be “muddled” by the matter; and the thorny issue of the origins of man was never broached in the Origin. Despite his doubts on matters of religious doctrine, he continued to support his local parish church; and though appearing increasingly to withhold belief in God in later life, he preferred the neologism “agnostic” to the more confrontational “atheist.”

Darwin’s work is a testament to the value of perseverance and painstaking effort. Lucky enough to have the inherited wealth necessary to avoid paid work, he filled his time with science. He was a careful and gifted writer, and his bewildering attention to detail in the study of barnacles, of botany, of domesticated animals, and of fancy pigeons in the groundwork for the Origin upheld his overt commitment to the “inductive method”: in the code of 19th Century men of science, this amounted to the imperative that obsessive fact collection must come before speculative theorizing.

In later life, he mentored countless botanists through correspondence: Down became the hub of an international network of botanical knowledge. Darwin’s enterprise was truly collective, and the many friends he made in scientific circles ensured his immaculate reputation. Darwin’s theory of evolution was the first deemed respectable by the genteel scientific community because the man behind it was respected. The virtues that earned him this status continue to impress and inspire his disciples today.

Varsity 23/01/09

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. juan  |  May 14, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    I think Darwin is big time cump. Darwin played a prime role in bringing about a fateful confusion between cultural and racial differences, conferring new scientific authority and intellectual legitimacy on theories of human inferiority central to eugenics, the most destructive medical movement in history. Darwin’s work is filled with references to the work of those involved in creating a radical new “scientific” justification for labeling races, classes, and individuals as “inferior”.
    Darwin writes in The Descent of Man that “a most important obstacle in civilized countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class” is the tendency of society’s “very poor and reckless”, who are “often degraded by vice”, to increase faster than “the provident and generally virtuous members”. Darwin declares ‘All other series of events—as that which resulted in the culture of mind in Greece, and that which resulted in the empire of Rome—only appear to have purpose and value when viewed in connection with, or rather as subsidiary to … the great stream of Anglo-Saxon emigration to the west.’ Darwin envisions a far grimmer future for races or sub-species less fit than the Anglo-Saxon. “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world,” he predicts. “At the same time the anthropological apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state … even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”’ It is time Darwin is taken off his pedestal and treated to rigorous and penetrating scrutiny.
    The law of entropy states randomness is the end of the process not the beginning. Chance according to Darwin is more fundamental than order, it takes a great an act of faith to say that order comes from chance as it does to say that horses and horsemen come from horsemanship. Evolution by natural selcetion is such a crude, over simplified explanation, as well as being based on an illogical first assumption. Eugenics is the ‘science’ developed by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. Galton saw an opportunity to advance mankind by taking the reins of Darwin’s evolution theory and applied social principles, to develop Social Darwinism… The emerging pseudoscience was only codifying the practice of inbreeding, already popular within elites for millenia. Biometrics appears to be a new science but was actually developed by Galton back in the 1870s, as a way to track racial traits and genetic history, and as a way to decide who would be licensed to breed. Eugenic ideas fuelled the thinking of the Nazis, including their notorious ‘racial hygiene’ and ‘breeding superhumans’ program. It progressively led to worse atrocities, including the pre-war elimination of entire wards full of people who had serious chronic mental handicaps. most modern evolutionists would seek to dissociate themselves from social Darwinism, claiming that it is a misapplication of Darwinian quote Galton ‘The garden of humanity is very full of weeds, nurture will never transform them into flowers; the eugenist calls upon the rulers of mankind to see that there shall be space in the garden, freed of weeds, for individuals and races of finer growth to develop with the full bloom possible to their species.” If Darwin was such a ‘genius’ to use the term lightly, why did he, his bum chum Galton, and his other bum chum Huxley, decide to strictly inbreed with their own families to creat ‘superhuman’ babies, to apply Darwins ideas directly, which resulted, within two generations, their children being born with severe defects, often dyig at birth, being born handicap and blind etc.

    He was a retard, racist and eugenisist, not a genius. Charles Dickens was a genius who should be revered, Darwin is a simply ringwraith of the apocalypse, like Malthus before and Marx and Keynes afterward.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  May 14, 2009 at 8:49 pm


  • 3. hydee devera  |  November 8, 2010 at 10:03 am

    charles darwin is not the real father of biology.He was just considered to be the father of modern biology.And the Father of evolution because he is the famous who made the evolution theory.
    The real Father of Biology is no other than ARISTOTLE.

  • 4. daniya  |  August 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    nice info form other pages.

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