Tristero makes a few points that are exactly what I’ve been trying to get across in my introductory biology class this week, where we’re covering Charles Darwin and the evidence for evolution. The first is that we do not rely on Darwin’s authority; there is no cult of personality, no reliance on the master’s word, no simple trust of anything or anyone. The other, though, is that Darwin is still a fascinating and important figure, and it’s not just that he was an old guy with a white beard who lectured the law.
Darwin’s not a stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce pip-pipping his way across the Empire. He is a young kid on a ship who once had the gall to grab a sailor’s dinner from his plate because he (the sailor) was about to eat a very rare ostrich Darwin had been searching for in vain for months. He’s a fellow who, when learning to use the bolas from Argentinian gauchos, managed to lasso his own horse, and he’s willing to write about it. Later, as he worked through his theory, which took him over 20 years to announce, he was tormented by the implications if it was misconstrued (as it was, right from the beginning). He developed a cautious style that is a model of arguing and inferring from the evidence. And, by all accounts, Darwin was a man devoted to his family and friends, deeply considerate and generous.
Yes, Darwin had his faults. But anyone with ten times his faults and one tenth of his talent would easily win a Nobel or Macarthur. That kids don’t have a chance to learn who this guy was – that’s a real crime.
One thing I tried to get across to my students was how much he was like them. He went off to Cambridge when he was about their age, and on graduation, a position they’ll all be in in a few years, had to wheedle his father into letting him go on this exotic sea voyage instead of settling down. Darwin really was a young fellow when he went off on the Beagle, in his early twenties.
Despite his charming youth, though, I still have to explain the list of things he got right and the list of things he got wrong. It’s the evidence and the ideas that matter, not the lovely personality behind them.