The “Father of Biology”
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.