For scientists and others of the Darwinian persuasion, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth has taken on the character of a saint's day. Books, exhibitions, lectures and broadcasts have prepared the way: On Thursday we commemorate the birth on Feb. 12, 1809, in Shropshire, of a thinker who transformed the world. Festivities continue till Nov. 24, when his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, will be 150 years old.
Regiments of enemies still abominate Darwin for shrinking the power of religion. Even as a young man, before making his discoveries, he grew cool to church teaching. Christianity consigned to the flames of hell all those who failed to believe in Jesus. That would have included skeptical Christians like his father, his brother and most of his friends. "This is a damnable doctrine," he judged.
Yet the principles of natural selection that he installed in the human imagination inspire a sense of awe that comes close to religious feeling. No one has done more than Darwin to demonstrate the complex, infinite wonder of life. Marvelling that simple beginnings could lead to the most wondrous forms, Darwin said, "There is grandeur in this view of life."
His vision of humanity rising slowly from mud over 80,000 generations can be more inspiring than the account of a deity creating the universe in seven days, then raining blessings on earth whenever so inclined. Darwin provides an exhilarating religion for all those who lack god-faith. In many ways his life resembles the story of a saint. He had to overcome formidable obstacles, not least his own apparently sluggish and fearful young self. "I was considered by all my masters as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard." His sickly mother died when he was eight. His tyrannical father, while never pleased with Charles, insisted that he follow him into medicine. When medical school failed to rouse his enthusiasm, his father decided to make him a clergyman; better that than nothing. Studying divinity at Cambridge, Charles was apparently resigned to life as an Anglican priest.
Instead, the scientist within him stirred. Nothing at Cambridge pleased him so much as studying, in his free time, the world of ... beetles. In the wetlands near Cambridge beetles showed him the infinite variety of animal life. The first published items in his career were reports on previously undocumented beetles.
A professor noticed his passion and recommended him for the unpaid job of naturalist on the Beagle, a ship about to make a five-year journey of exploration to South America. In 1831 Darwin left England on what proved to be, from the standpoint of the life sciences, the most important journey anyone ever made. He came home with notebooks filled with wild ideas.
Then he fell silent -- and ill. During much of his remaining life, even as he poured out scientific monographs, Darwin suffered from gastric pain, boils, heart palpitations, panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Maybe these were symptoms of an exotic tropical disease. They could also have been the psychosomatic product of a guilt-ridden conscience.
In his notes Darwin had the secret of life on earth but anxiety made him hesitate to disclose it. Did any man have the right to explode traditional beliefs? He knew that his conclusions would devastate his pious wife. Should she suffer for his science? Should he make himself a scandal to Christians everywhere? On the other hand, was he justified in refusing to share important truth?
He procrastinated for roughly two decades. Finally, when he realized that Alfred Wallace was about to publish a similar theory, he summoned his courage and started work on the story that millions of us have read since. Modestly, he began his introduction to The Origin of Species: "When on board HMS Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent." A perfect topic sentence, it hints at all that will come, from the beaks of finches adapted to different islands in the Galapagos to the exciting but of course frustratingly incomplete fossil record.
He set down both observations and theory in brisk, direct prose, as clear in 2009 as it was in 1859. He does pause, however, to recognize that many readers will have trouble with the time scale he's describing. Since evolution took place over millions of years, he tries to help us imagine what that lapse of time really means.
He'd pondered this question for decades and knew it can't be grasped in a moment: "Few of us know what a million really means." Just like TV science shows of today, he described a chart that would illustrate the difference between a million years and a century. Still, he didn't expect everyone to understand. He said that anyone who could study geology, and still refuse to believe in the vastness of time, "may at once close this volume." He gave up. He knew some would not see his point, in 1859 or a century and a half later.
But for those who do see it, Darwin stands today as the most inspired synthesizer of all time. He organized a mountain of facts, tested them carefully and gathered them into one compelling system under the umbrella of his capacious imagination. He turned facts into knowledge, which became wisdom. He carried truth-telling to the level of genius.
Today everything that happens in modern evolutionary biology takes place in the shadow of The Origin of Species. It turned out to be the beginning of an apparently endless research project. And there are no limits to Darwinian echoes elsewhere. As Matt Ridley wrote the other day in The Spectator, Darwin's belief that order generates itself, that the living world operates from the bottom up, anticipates precisely the style of the Internet, "an increasingly Darwinian place, where decentralized, self-organizing sophistication holds sway: Swarm intelligence is the fashionable term."
Darwin loved to study the formation of coral and Darwinism today looks like the intellectual equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef, a vast array of ideas that gathers to itself every mollusc of thought on the planet, shaping the ways we think about medicine, economics, art, religion and much else. Darwinism has become science's largest living organism.