I grew up in the middle of America in the Sixties. Both my grandfathers were fundamentalist preachers. I was brought up in Midwestern fundamentalism. And Darwin was one of the hate figures in my upbringing. I don’t mean active hate, it was a kind of passive hate, which is worse, and so were Marx and Freud, and so inevitably I decided not to open that can of worms when I was at university and I did engineering instead so I didn’t have to worry about where living species come from.
But when I came to England I felt I was a safe enough distance from this to use the three years subsidised by the British taxpayer at Manchester University to work on a PhD thesis involving Darwin and all of the protestant responses to Darwin in Britain and America at the end of the 19th Century. And the thought was I would be able to tell the people where I came from that they were just reinventing the wheel when it comes to opposing Darwin. In fact, most people had got over that a long time ago and most Christians had. So that’s how I got into Darwin.
When I did my PhD all those years ago, just before I came to the Open University, I was interested in how people responded to Darwin, mainly Christian thinkers, some of them scientists, some of them theologians. After that I just moved sort of helplessly towards the flame itself, towards Charles Darwin, his life, his career, his family, thinking initially that he was someone rather like me because I had completed a degree in divinity before I went to England for my PhD, before I came to the Open University, and Darwin had studied at Cambridge University with the thought of going into the Church of England.
And I suppose the thirty years since then has been a process of discovering that Darwin was someone very unlike me. He belonged to his place and his time and of course much greater than anyone could hope to be today, almost anyone. But what I found out about him was fascinating, and so in 1991 Adrian Desmond and I collaborated on what turned out to be a best selling biography called Darwin, funnily enough, and we've gone on to write another book together.
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