Philip Hensher: Charles Darwin, the uncelebrated scientist

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The Independent Online

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?

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