Sunday 6th September, 16.00 to 18.00
Venue: Austin Pearce 3
Chaired by James Moore, professor of the history of science, Open University, and co-author with Adrian Desmond of Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (2009).
On his bicentenary, Darwin’s ‘brand visibility’ has never been higher. Pundits insist that Darwinian insights are vital to addressing urgent environmental, ethical and religious issues, yet Darwin’s science and his reputation are increasingly contested around the world. What does history suggest may be the outcome? Three historians of science assess whether Darwin has a future in the 21st century. Will Darwin turn out to be just another ‘great’ but dated naturalist? Does his vision of nature sustain or subvert environmental action? Can Darwin’s view of human nature furnish a moral basis for our lives? Will Darwinism survive in theistic cultures by wearing a Designer-label?
Jim Endersby: ‘Darwin’s nature’
Darwin is celebrated as the founder of ‘ecological thinking’ because his writing shows great sensitivity to the subtle pattern of checks and balances that make up what he called ‘the economy of nature’. But Darwin’s understanding of nature was profoundly shaped by analogies with the human economy, with the Victorian world of railways, factories and business. Like most middle-class gentlemen, Darwin was convinced of the value of competition, including the inevitability of bankruptcy and failure. As in business, so in Darwin’s nature: individuals and species would, and must, fail in the struggle for life to ensure that ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ would continue to evolve. Darwin’s approving use of terms such as ‘colonist’ and ‘invader’ to describe introduced species that successfully replace indigenous ones may strike us as profoundly un-ecological, and even more so his ready acceptance that colonising humans could, and would, drive indigenous peoples to extinction. So, 150 years after the Origin of Species first appeared, does Darwin prompt us to think more ecologically? Or do we need to look elsewhere for guidance on how to preserve our planet and its diverse inhabitants?
Thomas Dixon: ‘Cooperating with Darwin’
The history of science helps us overturn several widely held misconceptions about Darwin, selfishness, and human nature. Darwin did not see the natural world as an arena of unfettered competition and he did not think that human beings were by nature purely selfish. In fact Darwin saw sympathy, love, and cooperation everywhere in nature and thought he had proved that economists and philosophers were wrong to suppose that human beings were driven only by self-interest. In the Descent of Man (1871) Darwin even foresaw a future in which ‘the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant’. Does the history of science suggest Darwin’s vision itself will be triumphant?
Marwa S. Elshakry: ‘Beyond Belief and Unbelief: Darwin in Global Perspective’
Darwin’s name is now often associated with religious scepticism, but this was not always the case. In the Middle East, India, China and elsewhere, Darwin’s ideas were used to reinforce local faith-traditions. Far from signalling the inevitability of a rift between religious belief and unbelief, these examples show how the encounter between evolution and religion was far less antagonistic than many in the West think it must be today. The late twentieth-century rise of a global creationism was a distinctly new phenomenon, one that need not be expected to persist much longer than it has already been with us.
About the speakers
Jim Endersby is a lecturer in history at the University of Sussex, where he teaches courses in the history of science and empire, Darwinism, and utopias. He is the author of Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science (2008) and A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology (2007), and the editor of a new edition of On the Origin of Species (2009).
Dr Thomas Dixon is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary, University of London. He has degrees in theology and the history of science, and teaches courses on the intellectual and cultural life of Victorian Britain. His most recent publications are The Invention of Altruism: Making Moral Meanings in Victorian Britain (2008) and Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2008). He has also published a book on study skills entitled How to Get a First (2004).
Marwa Elshakry is Associate Professor in History at Columbia University and currently working on a book manuscript, Reading Darwin in the Middle East.