Why Darwin?

Royal Photographic Society
Charles Darwin, 1868–1869; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

When I was a student I was enjoined to reject the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history, so called after Pascal’s remark in the Pensées : “Cleopatra’s nose: if it had been shorter, everything in the world would have changed.”1 The intent was not to dismiss biography as a way into the structuring of a historical narrative, but to reject the idea that the properties, ideas, or actions of some particular person were the necessary conditions for the unfolding of events in the world. If Josef Djugashvili had never been born, someone else could have been Stalin.

Despite this injunction, a remarkable amount of the history of science has been written through the medium of biographies of “great” scientists to whose brilliant discoveries we owe our understanding of the material world, and this historical methodology has reinforced the common notion that history is made by outstanding individuals. No respectable historian would claim that if Newton had never been born we would still be ignorant about gravitation. Yet we still refer to the regularities of the behavior of physical bodies as “Newton’s Laws,” the general regularities of simple inheritance as “Mendelism,” and the science of biological evolution as “Darwinism.” Even the famous history of science written by the Marxist J.D. Bernal is a recounting of the discoveries and inventions of individuals.

It would be wrong to say that biography is the sole, or even principal, present pathway into an understanding of the history of science. Certainly since Robert Merton’s founding of modern studies of the sociology of science in his 1938 work on seventeenth-century English science,2 the social milieu in which the problems of science arise and the institutional structure of scientific investigation have been central to our understanding of the history of scientific work. There are, however, occasions on which there are orgies of idolatrous celebrations of the lives of famous men, when the Suetonian ideal of history as biography overwhelms us. For Darwinians, 2009 is such a year.

It is the two hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and because, whether by chance or design, Darwin published his famous work when he was fifty, it is the 150th anniversary of the appearance of On the Origin of Species, It is not clear at what intervals such commemorations might occur. I myself have been a participant in international symposia on the one hundredth anniversary of the appearance of the Origin in 1859 and the one hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s death in 1882, both of which were attended by leading scientists of the time and resulted in commemorative volumes.

Neither of those occasions, however, was marked by the immense outpouring of Darwinalia that has marked the current occasion. On my desk are fifteen works that have just appeared, of which eleven are biographical, including two selections of Darwin’s letters,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.