Monday blast from the past #14 (on a Sunday): A biological birthday

Although I understand their motives for doing so, as a historian of science, I am very sceptical of peoples’ attempts to make an institution out of the so-called Darwin Day. In my opinion this only serves to strengthen, propagate and support the big names and big events view of the history of science, which is for me an anathema. What I see is people saying that Darwin is the be all and end all of biology.

Biology as a discipline has a long and complex history stretching back way before Aristotle who is often presented as a sort of father figure of the life sciences and involving the efforts of literally hundreds of named researchers and just as many if not more whose names have unfortunately become lost in the mist of time.

Even in the comparatively narrow history of biological evolution Darwin’s name is only one amongst many. Some who paved the path he would tread, including the much-maligned Lamarck and his own grandfather Erasmus. Some who were his contemporaries and contributed important aspects of the theory, most notably Alfred Wallace and Thomas Huxley and the many who followed in his footsteps filling in the gaps, correcting the errors and extending the theory in directions and areas that Darwin never dreamed of. Yes Charles Darwin made an important contribution to the history of biology. However his is only one stone, a particularly bright and fascinating one, in the vast mosaic of evolutionary theory and the much vaster mosaic of biology. Many hands cut and shaped stones for that mosaic and in over emphasising Darwin and his role by creating a Darwin Day people unwittingly diminish the contribution of those other.

In that sense my Monday blast from the past (on a Sunday) this week is a post I wrote two years ago on a man who made significant contributions to scientific method, human physiology and zoology the seventeenth century Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam who was born on 12th February 1637.

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4 Comments

Filed under History of science, Monday Blast from the Past

4 responses to “Monday blast from the past #14 (on a Sunday): A biological birthday

  1. Explaining innovation by ascribing everything to a relatively small number of big names has a long history. In fact, since many preliterate societies have culture heroes, the practice is literally prehistoric. In lieu of the great man theory of history, I hold to the great small groups theory of history; but I’ve got to admit the numbers are not on my side if it comes to a vote.

  2. Nobody said that Darwin is ‘the be all and end all of biology'; but he is without doubt ‘the main man’. If you can’t celebrate Darwin, then you shouldn’t celebrate anyone.

    Personally, I’m game for a bit of hero-worship.

  3. I think the human brain is just designed to recognize key individuals rather than engage in the energy-intensive bookkeeping work of tracking the history of science as a whole. And I think the brains of intellectuals are wired to be annoyed by this behavior. So here we are! :-)

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