To celebrate, or not to celebrate…

Richard Carter, blogging at The Beagle Project Blog, reminds us that 178 years ago today, HMS Beagle left England, with some rather insignificant naturalist wannabe on board. Did that guy – Darwin – really amount to anything later?

Historian of science Steven Shapin reflects on the Darwin year and celebrating scientists in general in the London Review of Books:

Even conceding the more expansive claims for Darwin’s genius and influence, we’re still some way from understanding what the festivities have been about. There are other claimants for the prize of towering scientific genius, and for ‘making the modern world’, but none of them has been the occasion for global festivities on anything like this scale. The 400th anniversary of Galileo’s birth was 1964, and Descartes’s 1996; Newton’s Principia turned 300 in 1987; Einstein’s Wunderjahr papers in Annalen der Physik, changing the way physicists think about space, time and matter, had their centenary in 2005. All were duly marked, mainly by historians, philosophers and physicists, but there was nothing remotely approaching Darwin 200. Even if we had an unambiguous metric for ranking scientific genius and modernity-making – one by which Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Einstein were chopped liver compared to Darwin – neither genius nor influence would be a sufficient explanation for the events of 2009.

The very idea of paying homage to the great scientists of the past is problematic. Scientists are not widely supposed either to be heroes or to have heroes. Modern sensibilities insist on scientists’ moral equivalence to anyone else, and notions of an impersonal Scientific Method, which have gained official dominance over older ideas of scientific genius, make the personalities of scientists irrelevant in principle. Honouring past scientists is therefore a different sort of thing from, say, paying homage to history’s generals, politicians or, indeed, imaginative artists. You don’t need to subscribe to a strict form of Pascal’s theory of history (had Cleopatra’s nose …) to accept, in one way or another, that individuals and circumstances can make a difference to the course of events. Had Lincoln not been president, the Civil War would quite probably have had a different trajectory and outcome; had Bush and Cheney not run the show, it’s plausible that Iraq would have not been invaded as a response to 9/11 or that an invasion would have turned out differently; and had Mozart not lived there would have been no Figaro. But it’s hard to accept that if Watson and Crick – clever and ambitious though they were – had not found the double helical structure of DNA, no one else would have done so.

Read the rest of “The Darwin Show” here.

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