TV Eye: Darwin Bicentenary

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

 Sir David Attenborough beside Charles Darwin’s statue in the Natural History Museum, London. The examples used in Charles Darwin and the tree of life to explain and illustrate the development of the theory of evolution were culled from Attenborough’s vast TV output over three decades.

Sir David Attenborough beside Charles Darwin’s statue in the Natural History Museum, London. The examples used in Charles Darwin and the tree of life to explain and illustrate the development of the theory of evolution were culled from Attenborough’s vast TV output over three decades.

Last November the Irish Times published a highly disingenuous article by the DUP’s Mervyn Storey implying that the schoolchildren of Northern Ireland were being subjected to the ‘insidious indoctrination’ of ‘Darwinian evolutionists’, despite the fact that there were ‘huge swaths of scientific data that point in another direction’ (Irish Times, 3 November 2008). Storey did not openly state what the other direction was—one can guess—but his reference to unspecified scientific data was troubling. What are they? Where are they? Why not refer to them? After all, the ‘theory’ that they supposedly disprove was originally derived from the vast amounts of information that Charles Darwin initially began to accumulate in the course of his five-year sojourn on the Beagle (1831–6), data added to and contemplated for decades before the eventual publication of On the origin species (1859). Darwin was an empiricist before he was an evolutionist; his opponents should really do likewise if they can. Despite such brickbats, Darwin remains one of the most significant thinkers of the past 200 years; perhaps only Karl Marx can rival his influence. So it seems perfectly reasonable for the BBC to mark the bicentenary of his birth with a genuinely daunting deployment of its resources.
The obvious starting point was to introduce the subject and his significance and, appropriately enough, this task was left to the august figure of David Attenborough. Charles Darwin and the tree of life was an ideal introduction to both Darwin and the development of his thought, culminating in a coherent statement of what this had implied: the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on earth, through the collective and infinitely variegated process of evolution. The means by which Darwin (who, in his youth, had considered joining the Church of England) arrived at this is arguably the single greatest intellectual journey of the nineteenth century. In terms of where it ended, the presenter’s position was at one with that of his subject, and, in a striking touch, the examples used to explain and illustrate the development of the theory of evolution were culled from Attenborough’s vast output over three decades. His powers of exposition—seemingly effortless, deeply informed and unfailingly engaging—remain undimmed, and if, as seems likely, this was to serve as a professional valediction for Attenborough, it was heartening to see one of the great educators of our time at work once again.
Attenborough was never the star of his documentaries; he was never supposed to be, and he knew it. His subject-matter always took centre stage, and in this case it was Darwin and his revolutionary theory. Unlike so many ideas thrown up throughout human history, Darwinian evolution is still very much with us; by definition it has to be. Its importance to humanity cannot be overstated, not least because of the challenge it posed, and continues to pose, to other patterns of belief. In any discussion of Darwin, one inevitably has to move from the man to his legacy, which was the subject of Darwin’s dangerous idea. Presented by Andrew Marr, this three-part series dealt with the implications of Darwin’s theory in terms of its broader significance over the course of the last 150 years.
Evolution inevitably challenged beliefs in natural hierarchies. This inevitably had implications in religious terms (more of this later), but the logical outcome of a belief in ‘natural selection’ (the term had in fact been coined by the economist Thomas Malthus) was that the process of evolution could and should be manipulated. And who better to manipulate it than those humans who assumed themselves to be the most advanced of their kind? Anthony Trollope (and many more besides) used such assumptions to justify British imperialism; surely it was the prerogative of a supposedly superior race to master the wretched of the earth? But the logical development of this was even worse: eugenics became the darkest and most dangerous consequence of Darwin’s idea, as humans sought to encourage the process of evolution by weeding out those deemed inferior. The fact that this reached its horrific apogee in Nazi Germany should not blind one to the fact that eugenics was not the twisted prerogative of one country alone: Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic advocate of sterilising the ‘inferior’, and both Sweden and the United States engaged in large-scale eugenics programmes. But the story of the ‘dangerous idea’ is not wholly negative: the assumption that humanity had a common origin has been the strongest basis for a belief in a common humanity. In this reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must also be counted amongst Darwin’s legacies.

Andrew Marr gets to grips with 'Darwin’s dangerous idea' in Cambridge.

Andrew Marr gets to grips with ‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’ in Cambridge.

And then there is religion, the subject of Did Darwin kill God? Belfast-born theologian Conor Cunningham set out to determine whether a belief in evolution is incompatible with religious conviction. The answer is: no. Why should these ideas be mutually exclusive? Indeed, the radical literalist creationism exemplified by Kentucky’s frankly ludicrous Creation Museum is a relatively new phenomenon. There was a strong tradition of Christian belief—‘old earth creationism’—that was quite happy to accept evolution: the biblical story of the creation could be read as allegorical, and often was. Yet the essential dichotomy between evidence and faith that underpins the evolution v. creation debate is perhaps not as simple as it seems. William Jennings Bryant, who represented the prosecution in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, did so as a Christian socialist who feared that Darwinism could be used, à la Trollope, to justify the social inequality and injustice that he so vehemently opposed. There is a case to be made that the aggressively secular stance of figures such as Richard Dawkins can be taken to arrogant and ultimately self-defeating extremes, which mirror those of their opponents. Cunningham, who was quite open about his belief in both Christianity and evolutionary science, provided a quietly thoughtful intervention into a debate characterised by its shrillness. HI

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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