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”!