Darwin’s global success

Why do we still talk about Darwin? Why is it that every child on the street knows what he looks like even today? Why is that everyone practically all over the world – 200 years after his birth, 150 years after he published The Origin of Species, and 127 years after his death – has an opinion about him? And finally, what was it that made him subject to so much attention even in his own time that he became the first actual scientific celebrity? Very much like the famous people of today: a person in the revealing and merciless public limelight – famous, controversial, portrayed, and depicted. He was gossiped about, raved about, laughed at, admired, envied, and cursed about.

In fact, this was something that puzzled Darwin himself. It was a constant mystery to him, how people recognised him even though they had never met him. This was of great amusement to his children who laughed of their father’s inability to see the connection considering the portraits of him in newspapers and the many Darwin postcards you were able to buy in London.

Darwin was a celebrity. He was celebrated, translated, copied, and criticized; particularly regarding three things:

1) The confrontation and break with the idea that every species was created separately and independently of others.

2) That nature had neither goal nor purpose.

3) That man lost its privileged place in nature and subsequently simply became one animal among others.

Ultimately, all life was related: bees and bluebirds, mosquitoes and mice, viruses and violets. And in this great family, the apes were man’s closest relative. These were three shocks for the otherwise relaxed religiosity of Britain. However, it recovered quickly. For some, Darwin’s ideas were still too controversial but for the majority, they were naturalised and neutralised in various theological interpretations which showed the embracing attitude of a still more tolerant and open minded Victorian society.

People laughed and shivered at the “ape theory”. They feared and discussed its consequences. But Darwin was not excluded. On the contrary, he was celebrated as one of the sons of the nation and the greatest scientist since Newton, possibly of all time. Darwin was embraced by the Anglican Church and was awarded a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. They did not want any unresolved issues with him. He had already become too important. He had become too great, too unavoidable and as it was dryly remarked in The Times, the English Church needed Darwin’s funeral more than the funeral needed the church.

Darwin had become so great in his own time that he could stand on his own. He could do this because he had proven that science could stand on its own. And if a person becomes so great that they can stand on their own, well then they are rarely allowed to do so. After his death, Darwin was overtaken, monopolised, profited on, and readjusted to fit into as many different agendas in as many different contexts and in as many different countries as possible that eventually it became difficult to figure out who he was, what he said, and what he stood for.

Was it a new way of perceiving life? Was it a struggle against God? Was it a defence of God? Was it an immoral theory? Was it a fight against slavery? Was it an attempt to maintain the existing societal form? Or was it a dangerous theory that would overthrow the structure of society? Was he evil? Was he good? Was he cunning, sneaky with hidden agendas? Or was he naïve and a little slow? Was he dangerous or harmless? The suggestions were endless and following his death, even more arose as the years passed.

Why is that? How did it happen? When we look at Darwin’s scientific legacy today – the theory of evolution with natural selection as the decisive mechanism driving evolution forward and the break with the idea of purpose within nature and biological hierarchies which place man as the absolute ruler of nature – we would like to say that it was because of Darwin’s brilliant scientific work and the consequences of his thoughts on our understanding of life on earth that caused it – that that was what made Darwin so famous.

However, it took more than a scientific breakthrough. Everyone all over the world discussed Darwin and his thoughts – because they could.  Not everyone had read his book, or his books. One of the most important factors was that his ideas could be communicated to a lot of people far away from the calm village environment of Kent, east of London, where On the Origin of Species was written.

Coinciding with the publication of On the Origin of Species, a revolution of the printed word occurred. Now it was possible to print a lot more, a lot cheaper, and with a lot more illustrations as well. At the same time, the generally improved level of education and higher standard of living meant that there were far more people who were able to read and that could afford to. Newspapers, magazines, and periodicals flourished and spread news, stories, and opinions from all over the world. And here, Darwin was a good and hot topic. It was less through his books and more through popular and public media that he became famous in England and consequently became world famous.

But that explanation does not suffice. No one today knows what Michael Faraday looks like. Who would be able to recognize James Clerk Maxwell? And how many discuss Ludwig Boltzmann over Sunday breakfast nowadays? The infrastructure of information was in place for Darwin’s global success. But it only worked for him because he was able to provide it with exactly what it needed: something to talk about. The most important factor in understanding the global success of Darwin is that Darwin made us ask questions. He made us think.

Even if you did not understand Darwin and even if you did not agree with Darwin, he touched upon the most basic of all questions that human beings – the most self involved animals on the planet – all pondered: who are we and where do we come from? What does it mean to be human and what is our place in nature? Darwin provided us with an opportunity to discuss ourselves. He became a public phantom who took on the form according to those who were talking about him, according to those who used him for whatever purpose they wanted. And his chariot was modern information technology.  However, by then, Darwin’s control over who Darwin was had been long lost. No one had patent or special rights. Particularly not concerning the point where Darwin became the person we all know, recognise, love and at times are annoyed by – the person who gave us the natural explanation to the evolution of life and who today brilliantly represents the key figure for our understanding of how our modern world came to be.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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