More than just a day

It is sometimes said you should never meet your heroes, because you will always be disappointed. But I’m pretty certain I would have liked Charles Darwin. From what I’ve read and listened to, he was apparently a decent, modest, humble man; one not given to ostentation or boastfulness. Having said that, let’s not get carried away with portraying him as some scientific saint; he could become irritated same as anybody. (Spending prolonged periods in a confined space with a moody companion on a small ship is trying). An angry Darwin once wrote (in a letter recently auctioned for £3,800) that he was ‘tired to death’ of responding to the ‘stupidest questions’ from ‘half the fools throughout Europe’. Wonder what he’d make of the world now, wherein similar remarks, were they to be uttered by the likes of Richard Dawkins, are often attacked as divisive arrogance.

200 years since Darwin’s birth, much discussion and speculation is to be had of the kind of man he was, his life, motivations, muses and influences, the profundity of his legacy, its subsequent re-interpretations and philosophical and apologetic mis-interpretations. And many in the ‘blogosphere’ are jumping on this bandwagon. This is all very worthy, educational and necessary. However, rather than reiteratively encroach on ground already sown up by many excellent scientists, writers, broadcasters, filmmakers, etc, who this year are espousing on the great man far more adroitly than most of us are able, maybe we should consider a different target.

Darwin is important, not just for providing us with the unifying framework for all biology, but for being a primary exemplar of the patient, thorough, careful, meticulous scientist. And the book he gave us 150 years ago was not only a great, world-changing scientific opus; but, written for the general public, it was simultaneously a masterwork in communicating science to the laity. Yet I wonder… do we lesser practitioners of the ‘caliginous art’ – in particular, us biologists, for it is we who are Darwin’s chief intellectual descendants – fully appreciate him? Are we all conversant with what this year commemorates?

So, today (if it has to be a day), try greeting your colleagues with a hearty ‘Happy Darwin Day’ and see how they respond. Think they all get it? Or are we all too tied up chipping away at the white coal face with our respective little rock hammers? (Or too busy watching bloody soap operas!) I wonder what the great man would make of it all.


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