Getting Ready for 200/150: “How Many Removes From Charles?” Edition

As everyone with a pulse and an interest in science knows, 2009 is the big Darwin year — the 200th anniversary of his birth (February 12) and the 150th of the publication of The Origin.  I will in a week or so have some news about what Inverse Square — or a derivative thereof — is doing to join the chorus on that one; I think I’ve got something shaping up that the community will enjoy.

In the meantime, and as I get stuck into my prep for that project, just a quick thought as I peered at the Darwin/Wedgewood family tree Janet Browne helpfully included at the front of the Voyaging volume of her Darwin magnum opus.  There I found that Darwin’s latest-surviving child, Leonard.  Leonard Darwin was born in 1850, before the Crimean War, the Sepoy MutinyAme–the Indian Rebellion of 1857 — and the American Civil War; and he saw the end of World War II, India’s independence and the effective end of the British Empire, all before his death  in 1948.*  And, not to overlook the most important factoid, young Leonard would have been a curious eight year old just as his father was in the midst of his most intense labors distilling the work of decades into the book that became The Origin of Species.

That skein of history would be remarkable enough just for one man’s memory, but what struck me was the thought that my f Uncle David, born and raised in England, with an army background (and subsequent career of his own) that could have led him to Major Darwin (Royal Engineers), might indeed have exchanged a conversational commonplace or two with the son of the man whose birth and work we celebrate soon.

All of which is to point out the obvious — and perhaps one tangential thought not quite so banal. The distance between anyone reading this and Charles Darwin is not that great.  It is entirely imaginable to have had a conversation with someone you know or knew who could have heard the stories of life at Down House from someone who watched and listened as Charles Darwin assembled his argument.  The middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the very center of a revolution in ideas seem very far away when we toss around anniversary numbers like a bicentennial, or one hundred and fifty years since this or that.  They are not, at least by the measure of human memory.  She danced with a man who danced with woman who danced with the Prince of Wales; we are that close to Charles and his pigeons and all the rest.

Nothing new there — just a reminder of the numbers.  But the thought that crossed my  mind as I wondered if my uncle did in fact ever meet Leonard (as above–I had not known to ask, of course, until the chance-met glance at the bottom of the family tree) was that Richard Dawkins may have missed the point of his own reflection that he too would have been a believer before Darwin.

If you follow my sense of the slenderness of the gap that separates us in the passage of generations, of the transfer of ideas and culture that pass from grandparent to grandchild at so near a remove from Charles Darwin’s in his study in 1859, then the broken chain of belief that separates Dawkins from Victoria’s (or Emma Darwin’s) Anglican God is very short indeed.

And that thought made me wonder  if the heat and urgency I read in Dawkins’ atheism seems a little misplaced.  Without wandering too far into this thicket, it does seem to me worth remembering that it has been a very short time in the history of human society, and a still shorter time if the person-person touch of memory matters, since Darwin’s thought  struck its blow to conventional faith.

It takes some time for big ideas to sink in.  (For a biblical example, as long as we are on the subject, God through Moses affirmed the equality of women, at least as far as inheritance and rights of property go, in the Book of Numbers, which dates back 3,400 years ago or so.  That thought took a while to penetrate, did it not?)

There is no doubt in my mind that Darwin’s rigorous materialism takes some getting used to; that part of the point of 2009 is to confront not just Darwin’s thinking, but the success of the research program that his work (and that of many others, of course) set in motion.  I’m confident, that is, not angry — and I remember that we have not been inside this world view for any length of time at all.  One hundred and fifty years?  The lives my uncle’s life has touched — mine and those before me — stretch back before then.  Easily.

*Here from the Wikipedia entry on Leonard Darwin linked above, is John Maynard Keynes take on Charles’s son, who proves to have just a hint of the wasp about him in his turn:

Keynes explained the decision to publish the niece’s “very personal account”: “Leonard Darwin’s life covered so vast an epoch of change in men’s ideas, his own attitudes towards the problems of his age were so characteristic of the best and noblest intelligences of his time, and he grew up in the environment of a family of so immortal a renown …” (p. 439) Darwin expressed his feelings about Keynes in a letter to Fisher (Correspondence p. 141), “I neither like him nor trust him … But he’s very clever …”

Image: Auguste Renoir:  “La danse à la campagne,” 1883.

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