Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Note on Darwin Day

I prefer to think of today as President Lincoln's birthday, but it does also happen to be the 200th birthday of a visionary scientist, Charles Darwin himself. To maintain my "science blog" credentials I'm advised to post on the occasion.

The science history tidbit I'd like to report is from a list Charles Darwin wrote down enumerating his father's objections to Charles' plan to jump on the H.M.S. Beagle and sail around the world as the ship's naturalist. In hindsight, we know Darwin's close observations of nature on islands around the world led to his biological insights into descent with modification. What parent wouldn't want their kid to write a book that's still read (and still insightful) a century and a half later? But Darwin's dad objected. Charles was 22 years old, about like a college graduate, and it seems Dad wanted him to settle down into the life of a clergyman (the most intellectual common career available). So when Charles floated his little "study abroad" idea to Dad, several objections were raised. Here's the list:

1.) Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter.

2.) A wild scheme.

3.) That they must have offered to many others before me the place of Naturalist.

4.) And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition.

5.) That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter.

6.) That my accomodations would be most uncomfortable.

7.) That you should consider it as again changing my profession.

8.) That it would be a useless undertaking.

Number 1 is particularly ironic, given the "science vs. faith" dichotomy that Darwin's work set up in some quarters for the years thereafter. Darwin would indeed go on to pretty much renounce faith, at least as associated with organized religion. But here's the thing: Dad wasn't against science, he was against what he saw as a frivolous junket at a time when most young men should be settling down. I'm sure many 22-year-olds hear this today; how much more so in 1831?

I can be sure this wasn't "doing science" vs. "serving God" because at the time the largest class of people, those who ran the most experiments and thought the most about science, were actually clergymen. Sure, there were university faculty, but they were outnumbered by the amateur scientists running around classifying things ... and it turns out that only clergymen really had the time (and I would argue the inclination) to run around classifying, measuring, and sorting the natural world. Case in point: William Buckland, the first scientist to describe a dinosaur, and Anglican priest. He was not that unusual for the time. The set of "clergymen" and "scientists" had considerable overlap.

Think about it -- there were no federal funding agencies or venture capital start-ups. The church was the largest institution that gave its employees enough free time to take on something like science. And, if they believed that thinking about and analyzing creation could bring glory to the Creator, then you could say the church provided motivation for scientific study as well.

So Darwin's Dad was indeed a prophet of sorts, but it's only in hindsight that his comment becomes particularly fitting. Perhaps if Darwin had stayed home he would have become a clergyman -- and then still gathered his detailed observations of nature into a ground-breaking mechanism that would change the world. I wonder how different things would be for faith and science if that had happened.

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