Philip Hensher: Charles Darwin, the uncelebrated scientist

Share
Related Topics

The other day, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who had an interesting story to tell.

He reported talking to a senior figure at the Smithsonian Institute, and complimenting them on their contributions to the centenary celebrations of Einstein's annus mirabilis of 1905, and their work during 2005, designated an "international year of physics". There is, of course, he remarked, a still more resonant anniversary coming up in 2009. That marks not only the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, but the 150th anniversary of the first publication of The Origin of Species. What, he asked, did the Smithsonian have planned to mark that?

According to Sir Martin, the principal American institution entrusted with the public understanding of science is having difficulty in mounting any kind of celebration at all, and there may well be none. Not that they wouldn't like to, of course: but there are distinct difficulties in getting any funding to increase any awareness of Darwin's ideas.

I would very much like to pass this on as no more than dinner-party chit- chat, but one doesn't readily discount the account of Sir Martin, and it seems quite appallingly plausible. Anti-Darwinists have been gaining in confidence over the last few years, and increasingly, alternative "theories" of life are being taught in schools and universities.

Bald creationism and its absurdly mock-plausible alternative, "intelligent design", are everywhere being taught as alternative theories to Darwin's theory of evolution. Even here, they are creeping into syllabuses - the new GCSE biology syllabus includes discussion of creationism, and it has been widely reported that medical students of religious bent are starting to demand acknowledgement of citations of the Bible and of the Koran as scientific texts.

The inclusion of undisprovable mythologies within scientific education as if they were on a par with proper theories of life is bad enough. At least, in that context, anybody who is taught evolutionary theory after creationist fantasies ought to be able to see the distinction, and it should only be a problem of time-wasting. But, if this story about the Smithsonian has any basis, it is clear that creationists will not stop there. They don't want Darwinian thought to be given any kind of public dissemination. They want creationism to be taught as if it were the correct answer to these major questions. If, by insisting that any survey of Darwin's work be "balanced" by deluded accounts of God's creation of the world, they can prevent any kind of explanation of life and evolution at all, they will be perfectly happy. They don't, in fact, want the debate they constantly call for; they just want to be declared right.

Of course, no reputable scientific institution could possibly mount any kind of event devoted to explaining creationism and "intelligent design", and if that is the condition, nothing will take place. I sincerely hope that there is some misunderstanding here; despite the august source of my information, I can't honestly believe that the Smithsonian is unable to go ahead with celebrations of one of the greatest scientific thinkers in history. Nothing, however, is impossible in America nowadays, and we should all encourage the institute to think again, and that any celebrations should not be mounted on the pretence of staging debates where, in reality, there is none to be had.

We live in a golden age of exhibitions

We've all got fantasy exhibitions in our minds, where a single body of artistic work, in reality widely dispersed, might be brought together in a single space. Well, one of those exhibitions of the mind has just been made reality, with the Tate's astonishing show of Constable's great six-foot landscapes, united in every case with the full-size sketch of the same subject (including View on the Stour near Dedham, above). The middle room of this show, with six stupendous pairs, is almost beyond description, and when one considers that these 12 paintings alone have been contributed by 11 separate museums, one's admiration for the Tate's powers of persuasion is unbounded. We are living, surely, in the golden age of art exhibitions. Fifty years ago, an exhibition like this would have been one of the grand excitements of the decade, if it could have happened at all. These days, even the unique opportunity to see these masterpieces united has, almost incredibly, to fight for our attention in a crowded market.

* Hideous embarrassment in Hay-on-Wye. Waiting for the festival bus, and seeing a couple of people hovering, I did exactly as one does in London now, and loitered vaguely about the bus-stop. Alas, everyone who arrived subsequently formed a very orderly queue, just like the ones of your childhood, and on the bus's arrival I was left saying, "After you, no, after you," in a demented state of over-compensation.

I honestly supposed that, as in Battersea, the entire country had given up standing in queues at bus-stops, rather than forming a milling crowd. I'm very glad to discover otherwise, even at the expense of my personal shame, and that this elementary symbol of fairness and respect, in most of the country, is still going strong. What else? Do most of the English still give their full number, speaking clearly, when they pick up a ringing telephone?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most