Friday, September 1, 2017

Goodbye Darwin

We live in an age where central bankers are politicians and the bills we carry in our pockets are ideological battle grounds. Rather than retelling the grimy myths of our past, the artwork on our bills is supposed to lead us forward to a future of equanimity and peace. Andrew Jackson is apparently getting booted from the $20 bill soon, to be replaced by abolitionist Harriet Tubman. To be sure, Tubman is eminently worthy of recognition, but is Jackson not? Jackson was a first generation immigrant, orphaned at 14, from humble means who built himself into a president of the US consistently ranked in top 10 historically. That seems to set a solid example for a first generation Mexican immigrant growing up right now in Riverside or El Paso.

The Bank of England is no different than the US Federal Reserve when it comes to tinkering with their bills. Since the year 2000, a bust of Charles Darwin has been featured on the £10 note in the UK. In a few weeks, he will be replaced with author Jane Austen. It's unclear exactly why Darwin is getting removed but it certainly fits with the theme of heavy handed ideology pushing. Again, not that Jane Austen is unworthy. But Darwin is such a large historical figure that it seems wrong to rotate him out.

It's hard to understate the blimp-like presence of Darwin in our collective consciousness. His name is like bright light in the darkness which attracts hangers-on like flies so it becomes difficult to separate what he really did and said versus what has been advocated for in his name. And ultimately, maybe it's not helpful to differentiate too much. The name Darwin has become a brand in and of itself and with a life of it's own. It carries all kinds of baggage and controversy. But you can't deny it's relevancy. His name even adorns the main science building at a university near my house. Darwin is absolutely a major figure, a lighting rod, whether he deserves it or not. He grew a baller beard though. Very trendy. Also married his cousin. Not so trendy.

I fully understand why American evangelicals despise the brand of Darwin. And really, much of the resentment is a reaction. Characters like Thomas Huxley, Ernst Haekel and Eugene Dubois latched onto Darwin's ideas early on and built them into a kind of parallel religion with the intention of fully dismantling and displacing Christianity rather than integrating with and extending it. Huxley harbored a fiery hatred for Christianity. So-called "Darwin's bulldog" once said exactly what he would like to do to preachers who resisted Darwin: "I should like to get my heel into their mouths and scr-r-unch it round" In the case of Dubois, of "Java Man" fame, there was a similar distain for the catholic roots of his family which fueled his drive to prove Darwin right via paleontology. Certain people of the left have used Darwin and his theories to bash Christians over the head ever since. Look no further than the "Darwin fish" that mocks the Christian ichthys symbol slapped on the backs of cars.

In the face of this perceived assault, Christians went tribal. They closed ranks and doubled down on aggressively strict interpretations of the bible. And 100 years later we have Ken Ham and his one-two punch of evangelical hilarity, the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. The saddest part is that natural selection is not incompatible with Christianity. But that gets lost in the turf wars, politics and money trials. Don't forget that Darwin was buried in a church and had a respected priest give the eulogy.

To Darwin's credit, he has haters on the left as well as the right. It's a good sign when you piss off people on both sides of the political spectrum. His main problem is that evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology assert inherent inequality among humans. "Equality" was a major slogan of the civil rights crusaders of the 60's and 70's. Jim Crow laws treated people unequally and they were wrong. But when you stretch that line of thinking to say "all humans are equal", you run into Darwin.

The DNA helix was discovered less that a century ago, well after Darwin had died. And our genome was sequenced only a couple decades ago. There were lay-people and scientists alike who were hoping beyond hope that these discoveries would show that all humans were alike inside. That our human differences were only skin deep, so to speak. In other words, they were hoping that modern science would prove Darwin wrong. But of course those hopes were dashed. Darwin's hypotheses have held up incredibly well to intense scrutiny. Look at these articles spaced about 15 years apart

Article from New York Times circa 2000: Do Races Differ? Not Really, DNA Shows
Article from Time Magazine, 2014: Former New York Times Editor: Race is Real

So the question is not whether Darwin is notable enough to appear on a bill but rather whether we like him well enough. Darwin's name is stained with some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. (Almost) everyone agrees that the eugenics movement was and is horrible. But Darwin's hypothesis was a thunderclap in the history of human civilization, shattering the glassy eyed reverence given to the Christian creation myths in the west. The admirable scientific rigor with which Darwin researched his hypothesis moved his ideas from up for debate to beyond reproach, though the evangelicals still try. Who knew Mendel's soy beans would be so important. Really there isn't much difference between fame and infamy. So we say goodbye to the Darwin on the back of the £10 bill but his legacy lives on.
Does Darwin actually deserve his fame and name recognition? Probably not. Evolution was not a new idea proposed by Darwin by any means. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published his "transmutation" theory in 1809 and his ideas were well known if not fully accepted within the scientific community well before Darwin came along. Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus, was a well known physician and public intellectual who wrote poems about life evolving from a single ancestor way back in 1802. Darwin's major breakthrough was not evolution itself, but the mechanism by which the transmutation occurs, namely, the theory of natural selection. But even if we focus on Darwin's crowning achievement, the theory of natural selection, he wasn't even the first person to publish a paper on it! Alfred Russel Wallace published "On The Law Which has Requested the Introduction of New Species" in 1855, which outlined the major ideas of natural selection. It was this paper which spurred Darwin to finally publish his "On the Origin of Species" years later in 1859. Who knows how long he would have waited to publish his theory if not for Wallace. To be fair, Darwin's book was full of facts and figures and backed up by research, in contrast to Wallace's paper which was hastily put together. Darwin had spent years researching and developing his theory, while Wallace was struck by the theory in a fever dream.

Darwin gets all the credit, for better or worse. Maybe it's because his family name was reasonably well-known in England and already connected with natural science and intellectualism (gasp, how privileged). He also worked as a researcher for many years before he published anything about natural selection. He had a solid base of credibility to work from. Ultimately, after "Origin of Species" was published, it sold out the initial print run. Not too shabby.


  1. It's unclear exactly why Darwin is getting removed but it certainly fits with the theme of heavy handed ideology pushing. Again, not that Jane Austen is unworthy. But Darwin is such a large historical figure that it seems wrong to rotate him out.