Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

To honor Darwin’s 204th birthday yesterday, we asked a few of our leading experts on Darwin and his work the following question:

For over 150 years, Charles Darwin and his work have influenced the fields of science, religion, politics, gender, literature, philosophy, and medicine. With a view in 2013 of the innumerable changes he has sparked across a number of disciplines, what should be considered Darwin’s most important contribution?

Here’s what they had to say:

“Charles Darwin’s most important contribution, made in his Origin of Species (1859), was to establish the fact of evolution—common descent from primitive ancestor(s)—and supply the chief mechanism, natural selection.  It can be argued that the effect of this in the wider domain, challenging religion for instance, is more important overall, but it begins with the science and it is for this that we celebrate Darwin.”—Michael Ruse, editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought

“In a word, contingency. Darwin disabused humanity of our vainglorious conceit that we were destined to rule this planet. Like every other species that ever lived, Homo sapiens arose through a long chain of improbable—and unrepeatable—events. Darwin proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt for any unbiased thinker who reads his Descent of Man, arguably as great a masterpiece as his Origin of Species. Descent reads like a legal brief, and rightly so, because Darwin knew that he was pleading a tough case in the biased court of public opinion. In the first chapter Darwin presents the human embryo as Exhibit A. Then, like Sherlock Holmes, he uses details to deduce the history of past events. More exhibits follow, leading inexorably to an inconvenient conclusion: we are only one frame in a long movie, stretching back to the dawn of life. The narrow escapes that our ancestors managed from events beyond their control were as legion as the hair-raising challenges that Harrison Ford faced in the Indiana Jones movies. We should celebrate Darwin not only for giving us an antidote for our hubris but also for bequeathing to us what Richard Dawkins (our modern-day Darwin) has called The Greatest Show on Earth. Contingency and endless entertainment: these are Darwin’s greatest legacies.”—Lewis Held, an evolutionary-developmental biologist and author of Quirks of Human Anatomy

“No one has influenced our knowledge of life on Earth as much as Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution by natural selection, now the unifying theory of the life sciences, explained where all of the astonishingly diverse kinds of living things came from and how they became exquisitely adapted to their particular environments. His theory reconciled a host of diverse kinds of evidence such as the progressive nature of fossil forms in the geological record, the geographical distribution of species, recapitulative appearances in embryology, homologous structures, vestigial organs and nesting taxonomic relationships. No other explanation before or since has made sense of these facts. In further works Darwin demonstrated that the difference between humans and other animals is one of degree not kind. In geology, zoology, taxonomy, botany, palaeontology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, literature and theology Darwin’s writings produced profound reactions, many of which are still ongoing. Yet even without his evolutionary works, Darwin’s accomplishments would be difficult to match. His brilliantly original work in geology, botany, biogeography, invertebrate zoology, psychology and scientific travel writing would still make him one of the most original and influential workers in the history of science. Darwin’s writings are consequently of interest to an extremely wide variety of readers.”—John van Wyhe, director of The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

“Darwin showed us that we’re animals. He showed us that there’s no fundamental distinction between us and any other critter on the planet. The most important implication of this Gestalt shift may be ethical. As soon as we accept that the human-animal distinction is not fundamental in nature, it becomes difficult to accept a moral code that privileges the wellbeing of human beings but is indifferent to the wellbeing of any other animal. It becomes hard to resist extending our moral concern to any creature capable of suffering, human or not. If present trends continue, the main beneficiaries of Darwin’s great idea may not be human beings. Ultimately, the main beneficiaries may be the other animals we share the planet with.”—Steve Stewart-Williams, author of Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life

“Theories of evolution were around long before the Origin of Species, and natural selection became fully accepted within science only after decades of work by others in the laboratory and field. Why then does Darwin matter? As the philosopher John Dewey said over a century ago, Darwin is important not because he gives the right answers, but because he asks the right questions. His writings possess the tact, humility, and literary skill to convince readers that evolution, including that of humans, should be the subject of scientific inquiry. Readers are encouraged to think, observe, experiment, and explore for themselves–to share Darwin’s passion for understanding the laws that govern the natural world.”—J.A. Secord, director of the Darwin Correspondence Project

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