Scientists and Saints’ Days

Friday 12 February was the birthday of Charles Darwin, which has now been celebrated by his acolytes for several years as Darwin Day. The British Society for the History of Science obviously thinks this is a good idea and asked the following question on Twitter, “Should other scientists have a day?” launching a poll with the usual suspects, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Galileo Galilei and the not so usual Rachel Carson. I for one have the feeling that in following this path the history of science community is running the danger of establishing a faux religion with Saints’ Days like the Catholic Church. Some of you may ask, well what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we honour the women and men who gave us our scientific worldview? I, as a historian of science, would answer; yes we should acknowledge them but not like that. So why do I object?

In the good old days what passed, as popular history of science (and not infrequently academic history of science) was a collection of inspiring stories about how lone, oft persecuted, geniuses fought against the ignorance of the masses to bring enlightenment into the world and to lead humanity into a glorious future. The Early Modern Period was a litany of great names and great moments: Copernicus/heliocentricity persecuted by the Catholic Church, Galileo/modern astronomy persecuted by the Catholic Church, Descartes/the rainbow killed of by Christina, Newton lone loony who invented the modern world. Starting around 1930 historians of science have been chipping away at this travesty deflating the great and bringing in the hordes of anonymous researchers who got left out of the picture. Having rehabilitated the lesser beings, who actually contributed most of the real work, they then moved on to the instrument makers, technicians and finally the women. Despite all their best efforts these advances in the story of science, and the way that we tell it, remain largely unknown to the public at large, as the media and all too many of the pop science writers insists on repeating the myths of old. However some progress has been made and more can be made if we keep up the pressure.

The concept of special days for selected scientists is a massive step in the wrong direction. It harks back to the great names great event model of the story of science that we actually need desperately to get rid of, once and for all. Are we going to have a calendar of the patron saints of science: 12 February is St Charles’ Day, patron saint of evolution, 14 February St Galileo’s Day patron saint of the telescope: St Isaac’s day poses a bit a problem, when do we celebrate the patron saint of gravity? On 25 December the day he was born under the Julian calendar or 4 January the corrected date on the Gregorian calendar? On 7 November, Saint Marie’s day, the patron saint of radiation do we all go down to the clinic for a dose of radiation therapy? You think I’m joking? On Darwin Day people were posting images of artefacts out of Charles Darwin’s life, his geological hammer, his death’s head walking cane, without links to articles or websites, like the medieval Christian Churches displaying relics of the saints. Will our science museums become shrines to the saints of science with reliquaries containing their bones? The Galileo Museum in Florence already had his middle finger on display in a gilded glass container.

In 2010 I posted a short post with the deliberately provocative title A Biological Birthday. Why provocative? Because most readers would expect a post about Charles Darwin, but 12 February is also the birthday of the Dutch anatomist, microscopist and natural historian Jan Swammerdam (born 1637). I wonder how many of the people posting accolades to Darwin on social media last Friday have even heard of Jan Swammerdam let alone know about the important contribution that he made to the life sciences.

12 February is also the birthday of Julian Schwinger (born 1918). Julian who I hear a chorus of Darwinites cry. Julian Schwinger, as well as being a frighteningly intelligent child prodigy, won the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics for his theory combing the theory of special relativity with quantum theory, one of the most important developments in twentieth-century physics.

Despite the fact that I follow a large part of the online history of science community on social media the number of people honouring Schwinger’s birthday was a small fraction of those honouring Darwin’s and I think I was the only person to acknowledge Swammerdam.

The claim made by the supporters of Darwin Day is that the theory of evolution by natural selection is the most important scientific theory ever discovered and that is why it should have a special celebration. Putting aside all of the plentiful arguments against quantifying the importance of scientific theories relative to each other, I think, for example, that for the bridge designing engineer the Newtonian theory of gravity is more important than the theory of evolution, if you are going to have a special day for the theory of evolution then celebrate the theory of evolution and not Charles Darwin. Celebrate all the early evolutionary theorists Maupertuis, Monboddo, Lamarck; Erasmus Darwin, Wallace and Charles Darwin, we can even give a nod to Patrick Matthew and a handful of other minor figures. We shouldn’t forget the geologists, whose theories of deep time allowed for the possibility of evolution in the first place Cuvier, Hutton, Smith, Sedgwick, Buckland, Lyell and all the ones I don’t know not being a historian of geology. We should forget the natural historians and palaeontologists whose work laid much of the foundations on which the theory of evolution was built, a list of names I am not qualified to write. Science is a collaborative enterprise let us demonstrate this in our historical acknowledgements and get away from the type of hagiographic hero worship engendered by concepts such as Darwin Day.

I am not alone in having doubts about Darwin Day. Already in 2012 the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, Why I Am Not Celebrating “Darwin Day”. Last week on Twitter Jon Phillips (@jowiph) a doctoral student of the history of science at Johns Hopkins tweeted the following:

Every year I think I get a little less comfortable with the idea of “Darwin Day.” Treating scientists as objects of veneration feels off. I get the impulse. Evolution is a powerful theory, Darwin was a hugely important figure, and both have been at the center of a culture war. But I spend so much time reading people who invoke science—and evolution in particular—in support of often extreme political agendas I worry that treating Darwin as a secular saint emphasizes the talismanic quality that makes evol. a useful framing device for racists, etc – Jon Phillips (@jowiph)

Also last week Alexander Hall (@Green_Gambit) a post doc “researching & thinking at the interface of science, religion, & the environment” at Newman University (@Newman_Uni) posted the stimulating essay Darwin Day: Celebrating Without Deifying on the website Science & Religion: Exploring the Spectrum.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a step back and seriously ask if we should follow the BSHS suggestion for even more scientific “Saints Days”!














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16 responses to “Scientists and Saints’ Days

  1. The notion of replacing saint’s days with the names of scientists and other culture heroes is nothing new. The Positivist calendar of August Comte came out in 1849. In that system, today is the 20th of Homer, 228; and the day is dedicated to Lucian, the ancient satirist. Later months are named after more recent figures—the eleventh month is Descartes, reflecting the fact that Comte was French. Of course Comtean positivism is not irreligious—he called his belief system the Religion of Humanity—and the calendar honors religious figures as well as poets, philosophers, political leaders, and scientists. Moses and Jesus and the others didn’t realize that society is god, as Comte did, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t further human progress.

    I don’t see that there is anything illogical about making scientists into saints. After all, if you’re going to make science the basis of civilization, you’re going to have to make certain compromises with human nature. Maybe P.Z. Myers will propose an improved version of the Comtean calendar—minus the month of St. Paul presumably—when he gets around to developing Atheism plus plus.

    • laura

      Ah, I was going to bring up the Positivist Calendar! It’s interesting how how our views of who is the “greatest” change though. Bichat got his own month! The calendar would need more revision than the Julian calendar, with probably the same amount of cultural fuss.

  2. Actually Schwinger’s prize was shared three ways: Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman. Except for the tradition of no more than three to a prize, Dyson might also have been named; at least most historians feel that Dyson’s paper showing the equivalence of the three theories contributed decisively to the understanding of quantum field theory.

  3. Is the science history any different in this respect from, say, political history? Here in the US we just recently celebrated “Presidents’ Day”, which was called Lincoln’s birthday when I was a kid (sort of). But Lincoln didn’t end slavery in the US all by himself!

    Methinks Tolstoy was complaining about the Great Man theory of history well before the science historians of the 30s.

  4. I’m all for celebrating the lives, achievements and legacies of as many scientists as possible. As I never tire of saying, far than there being no such thing as a science hero, they are *all* heroes in my book. Even the ones who were hopelessly wrong.

    However, what this post fails to acknowledge is that Darwin is a very special case. Not because he was the greatest human being who ever lived (which clearly he was). Nor even because he was the sexiest man ever to draw breath (again, no contest, present company excluded). Nor because his Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection was and is the most mind-blowingly awesome concept ever (I would rank it second most mind-blowingly awesome, after the Second Law of Thermodynamics). The reason why Darwin is a particularly special case is that, as the undoubted (and rightful—pace, Wallace fan-boys and -girls) poster-boy of evolution, he is the continuing target of all sorts of bullshit from evolution-deniers. Don’t forget that Darwin Day was an idea which started in America: a country with far more than its fair share of these nut-jobs. (I know this for a fact, as I get to delete their inane comments on an almost daily basis.)

    When would-be future presidents can get away with saying that Darwin was encouraged by Satan (, you know you have a country with a serious science-communication problem. Putting it simply, Newton, Einstein, Galileo, Copernicus, Lyell, Wallace, Hooker, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Faraday, Curie, Tegetmeier, and a host of other scientists whose birthdays you would be right to celebrate don’t have anything like the sort of shit spouted about them by religious cranks as Darwin.

    Celebrating Darwin Day seems like a pretty good way of pointing out to nice, well-meaning people who have been misled into believing that evolution is still a ‘controversial’ idea that Darwin and his legacy are well-worth celebrating.

    But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    • B'Rat

      What really bugs me is how many Americans still haven’t got a clue that among developed countries the Creationist insanity is pretty much their isolated idiosyncrasy. I live at the centre of Catholicism (Italy), yet Creationism is mostly seen as an American lunacy. Thus such arguments can only leave us Europeans lukewarm

      • I’m not suggesting that we see it as an alternative to religion; I’m suggesting that a lot of religious people in America *already* see it that way. Celebrating Darwin Day is good way of pointing out to confused people caught in the middle that there is nothing wrong with accepting the fact of evolution—and that, far from being influenced by Satan, Charles Darwin was a thoroughly good chap.

      • B'Rat

        Richard Carter,
        so, let me sum up, you have a problem with a large number of people who suspect that Science is just Religion by another name, just one with a different liturgy, and your master plan to deal with this is… to prove them right? Sure, what could go wrong?

    • Your arguments for Darwin Day are almost the same as Michel Ruse’s arguments against it. He, I think rightly, objects to Darwinian evolution theory being served up as an alternative to religion.

      • B’Rat, you ‘sum up’ what I said spectacularly inaccurately, if I might say so.

      • B'Rat

        Well, just as your management of the comments’ trees 😐

        The problem is your focus on *celebrating* people and stuff, something that has pretty much nothing to do with Science and much with modern liturgies that many, maybe not so incorrectly, perceive as attempts of sort to fill the space usually taken by religions and traditions. I simply fail to see how this should convince people that Science is something very different from these.

      • [Wordpress comment trees prove beyond doubt (if further proof were ever needed) that there is no such thing as Intelligent Design.]

        As an outsider (I am British), I see the American invention of Darwin Day as something akin to the Gay Pride movement. Bigots bad-mouthed gay people, so gay people hit back by saying they were proud to be gay. Religious fundamentalists in America make evolution out to be a dreadful lie, so the Darwin Day people started a campaign to show there’s nothing wrong with believing in evolution and celebrating science. They chose Darwin’s birthday because Darwin is particularly reviled by religious fundamentalists.

        Personally, as a British Darwin fanboy, I celebrate Darwin Day for the sole reason that it is my hero’s birthday.

  5. (Damn you, WordPress nested comments! They confuse me every time! I was replying to Thony, obviously.)

  6. michaelfugate

    I could care less about Darwin Day – and we should celebrate science as a collective process. What I do care about is the dismal state of science education in the US (ok, not just science education) – of which anti-evolution is a big part. Ruse and organizations like the National Center for Science Education believe that since some people both accept the evidence for evolution and believe in gods, then we should be able to convert anti-evolution theists into pro-evolution theists and not into pro-evolution atheists. This is easier said than done. If Ruse or the NCSE were educators and studied pedagogy best practices, they would realize that their preferred methods are doomed to fail (they admittedly have no assessments in place to determine if their materials do or don’t work) and that to use methods that actually would work a great many people will lose their faith in the process. It is a trade-off that they are unwilling to acknowledge and that many theists (and perhaps some atheists) are unwilling to accept. Misconceptions like a young earth, species fixity and a world-wide flood are difficult to dislodge because they are so tied to the Bible being their god’s literal communication. To elicit change would require a dip into religion so deeply that it would likely be deemed unconstitutional. The process would tear apart families and communities – ostracizing dissidents.

  7. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #32 | Whewell's Ghost

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