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Darwin Now pod 4: Global response

Updated Tuesday, 27th October 2009

How has the worldwide audience reacted to Darwin’s theory of evolution? And now that his works are coming online, what has been the impact of Darwin’s going digital?

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Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani – duration: 00:15

Rissa de la Paz: Welcome to Darwin Now. In this podcast we’ll be looking at how the worldwide audience has reacted to Darwin’s theories – then and now.

Thomas Glick, Professor of History at Boston University has made an extensive study of Darwin’s reception round the globe. He maintains that Darwin’s skills as a correspondent made him a supremely effective director of research – from a distance.


Tom Glick: He was dependent on other people’s information, and so he created by mail a kind of virtual department of biology. So he had people all around the world who were sending him information: Asa Gray, Professor of Botany at Harvard, was his American guy and also his biogeography guy. And he had other people, Englishmen in India, for example, or Englishmen in South Africa, but then he either knew personally or had close epistolary relationships with the leading zoologists and botanists in Europe.


Peter Kjærgaard: He was not just gathering information from around the world, he was also gathering actual specimens.

One good example is at the Zoological Museum at the University of Copenhagen, not only did he locate that they had particularly interesting barnacles at their collection, he got information about it, but he also actually persuaded the people at the University of Copenhagen to send some of their barnacles to Darwin in Down House at a time when the postal system was even worse than it is today. He must have been an extremely charming man that he could persuade people to do things like that.


Rissa de la Paz: Peter Kjærgaard, Associate Professor from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Private persuasion is one thing but how successful were Darwin’s theories in winning public support? The main channel through which Darwin’s ideas were initially spread was through books – wave upon wave of editions, translations and popularisations of his work. During Darwin’s lifetime, The Origin of Species was translated into eleven languages. Who translated them and how they were translated played a critical role in how the ideas were received. In France for instance, Darwin’s first translator was a woman, Clemence Royer, whose creative re-working added notions of inbuilt progress and a purposefulness to evolution that owed more to her compatriot, the naturalist Lamarck. Lamarck believed that characteristics acquired during an individual’s lifetime could be inherited and so lead to a gradual improvement in form and function. But whereas Darwin acknowledged that the environment could have an effect on organisms, he didn’t accord any ‘life force’ or future goal to living things. Nevertheless, by giving Darwin’s ideas a Lamarckian twist, Clemence Royer may well have facilitated their reception in a country otherwise resistant to Darwin’s notions of struggle and natural selection.


Tom Glick: There were all kinds of French biologists who were evolutionists or whose evolutionary notions were, in a sense, legitimised or justified by Darwin’s book. So when evolution was out in the open then all these Lamarckian come out of the woodwork. He was never elected as a general member of the French Academy of Scientists because of Lamarckian opposition.


Rissa de la Paz: Darwin did eventually sneak in through the back door of the French Academy. He was elected to the botanical section because few could argue with his skills as a botanist, even though they were distinctly cool about his evolutionary views. The grudging reception of Darwin’s ideas in France contrasted with the enthusiastic response from German naturalists. The zoologist Ernst Haeckel for instance, became a great populariser of Darwin. Thomas Glick argues that the demographic profile of the scientific community in both countries was a factor.


Tom Glick: The people who received Darwin favourably in Germany were young; they had not reached the age of 40 in 1859. That’s important because it was a very large generation of biologists. When you look at France, there’s a whole generation that’s missing, and so all you have there ready to pronounce on Darwin were older people who were certainly not going to change the way they thought about the natural world or change their methodology. So there was a kind of a void of pro-Darwinians among the leadership of French natural history because they were set in their ways by virtue of age.

Huxley once said, famously, that ideas don’t win out because they are better than the ones they’re replacing, you simply wait for the die-off of the older generation and then the paradigm turns over naturally. There’s obviously a great deal of truth in that.


Rissa de la Paz: Popularisers of Darwin also had an impact on how Darwin was received in countries such as Denmark.


Peter Kjærgaard: One example of how Darwin’s theories and Darwin’s ideas were being appropriated and travelled, if you like, from one country to another, from one context to another, is how Ernst Haeckel in Germany took up Darwin’s ideas and how Darwin’s ideas were used immediately in an atheistic context and in a discussion in Germany about science and religion, thus making Darwinism into something which was closely related to atheism.

Scandinavian culture at the time was intimately linked to German culture. A lot of the discussion going on in Scandinavia was filtered through the reception in Germany in close connection to Ernst Haeckel’s views and the discussion about evolution and atheism. That produced a rather negative response in some religious circles, making it difficult to handle the theory of evolution.

Rissa de la Paz: It’s also important to realise that while certain countries like France and Germany had a thriving tradition of natural history, others didn’t. Who were the torch bearers for evolution there?


Tom Glick: In countries like that, Darwin was received by doctors, and in Catholic countries doctors among the professionals were usually left of centre in the 19th Century. In Spain, one of the great conduits of biological Darwinism were departments of comparative anatomy because the books that were used, the textbooks of comparative anatomy, presented the material in an evolutionary framework. So Gegenbauer whose manual of comparative anatomy was already the leading textbook in Europe. After 1859 he rewrote the whole thing so that everything was arranged in phylogenetic series, that is, we began with a study of each system: muscular, blood, nervous system. You began with the lower animals and then you worked your way up through the phylogenetic ladder until you got to human beings.

So the doctors are really filling in, filling the void created by the lack of biologists or, if not the lack of biologists per se, the inability of naturalists in universities to get the message out about Darwinism because of governmental control.


Rissa de la Paz: Certainly in some countries, the line between those sectors of society that were for Darwin, versus against him, could be starkly drawn.


Tom Glick: Look at a place like Spain, which is unusual because there weren’t many nuances in the reception of Darwin, you were either for it or against it. So basically everybody left of centre was for Darwinism and everybody to the right of centre was against it, on the grounds that it was not only contrary to biblical teachings, but also that it was destructive in the case of Spain of what Catholics regarded as their standard of morality. If survival of the fittest were true among humans then that rendered the whole concept of charity to the poor invalid.


Rissa de la Paz: But in the very process of articulating their views, opponents of Darwin effectively spread the word about him.


Tom Glick: If, as happened in many places, priests or ministers preached in sermons against Darwin from the pulpit that has the effect of further spreading Darwin’s name. It also promotes a stripped-down version of his ideas. The man on the street also hears about Darwin in a highly disarticulated form, so you get endless monkey jokes in the form of cartoons or in the form of epigrams that are passed around orally. So Darwin’s name got around.


Peter Kjærgaard: After the publication of On the Origin of Species, and especially after the publication of the multiple translations into a lot of different languages and thus the spread of Darwin’s ideas to a larger audience, we find a range of different representations of Darwin. You had illustrators copying an image of Darwin from, for instance, the British newspaper or German newspaper or a French newspaper, and now we find a multitude of Darwins, and he is being portrayed as anything from this gentle British naturalist to the devil himself.


Tom Glick: In the newspapers, including working class newspapers, there were frequent news stories about Darwin or about Darwinism, and frequent editorials. The editorials appeared at certain times that were particularly newsworthy; the publication of The Descent of Man, for example, or The Death of Darwin in 1882, that was the occasion for every newspaper, in Spain, for example, every newspaper to take a final stand on Darwin and the meaning of his life. And there you get what you would expect. He’s a great naturalist to be sure, he’s a working class hero, he’s opposed to anything regressive, or if you’re on the other side he was the servant of the devil, although frequently Darwin himself was spared personal attacks because I think it was very well known that he was a great naturalist whatever you thought of his ideas.


Rissa de la Paz: To be esteemed as a great naturalist would no doubt have gratified the modest Darwin – but to be hailed as a working class hero might have taken him by surprise. How did ordinary workers, with no formal interest in science, even get exposed to Darwin’s ideas? Sure enough, there were popular books by other evolutionists like Thomas Henry Huxley or the philosopher Herbert Spencer but how did they fall into the hands of the man in the street?


Tom Glick: Everywhere in Europe labour unions had night schools for workers, and in these night schools, among other things, translations of Haeckel’s popular works and other popularisers, of Huxley, of Herbert Spencer, translated into the European languages in cheap editions. The case I know best is Spain. The anarchist labour unions had a famous system of night schools and there were publishing houses in Spain which specialised in turning out these cheap editions for working class people, so the ideas get around.


Rissa de la Paz: Darwin’s ideas, then, were part of a heady brew of theories about biological and social progress that captured the public imagination. And, depending on the social context, these ideas were seized on by groups eager to promote their own agendas.


Peter Kjærgaard: What happened about ten years after the publication was that Darwin’s ideas were now being appropriated by various intellectual political social groups who were using Darwin’s ideas to support their own case. That was the case in Denmark where Darwin, he was now connected to a specific ideological programme that was part of reacting againstthe conservative forces at the University led by the intellectual Georg Brandes. What this demonstrates is that we cannot separate scientific discussions from cultural discussions about Darwinism and about the influence of his theory, and about how his theory was interpreted. It’s all interlinked, it’s all mixed and out of it comes these very different local or national interpretations of Darwin’s theory and thus the significance of his theory.


Rissa de la Paz: These nuanced cultural interpretations surface time and again in the global response to Darwin’s ideas. Take the notions of struggle and competition. Darwin saw these as the logical result of continuing population growth as originally pointed out by the economist Thomas Malthus. Naturalists in Russia played down that aspect of the theory.


Tom Glick: The reception in Russia was interesting because it was Darwin without Malthus. The Russians didn’t like basing the struggle for life on competition among members of the same species or among members of different species. They were much more comfortable with the notion, the struggle for life of organisms against the environment, and that view of removing competition, that was irrespective of ideology from the right wing to the left wing, for various reasons Russian naturalists didn’t like the Malthusian component.


Rissa de la Paz: At the same time, The Origin of Species provided a powerful metaphor that inspired followers well beyond the confines of the scientific elite.


Tom Glick: They were interested in looking for metaphors that could inform their social ideas. If you were an egalitarian who believed that in a meritocracy, which was a very common theme of the centre left throughout Europe, then you would argue that aristocracies of the blood were contrary to natural law. Darwin isn’t being seen as natural law, because if you were in the elite simply by virtue of birth and not by virtue of talent then that was contrary to natural law as promoted by social Darwinists. And so Darwinism was presented frequently as revolutionary, something of course that Darwin would not have approved of.


Rissa de la Paz: Yet the concept of progress extolled by some evolutionary thinkers resonated in areas where political groups were hungry for change.


Tom Glick: China’s very interesting because Spencer was translated before Darwin and so Darwin when discussed is fit into this notion of progress as a natural law taken up by the revolutionary left. Mao is said to have gotten his ideas of revolution from popularisers of Spencer rather than from Marx. And the version of Darwin that comes through in China around 1900 is Lamarckian. Not just the inheritance of acquired characteristics but the notion of what Lamarck called the pouvoir de la vie. George Bernard Shaw translates it as the life force, that’s very much like the Tao, and so you get a reception of Darwin’s ideas put in a Taoist framework, an inner force, an inner force that propels creatures described towards certain objectives.


Rissa de la Paz: While books and articles were the primary way in which Darwin’s ideas were disseminated, in some cases it was through particular individuals capable of spreading the word.


Tom Glick: Japan is interesting because there was an apostle. The apostle in this case was an American named Edward Morse He’s working on brachiopods and he went to Japan because that was the place the species he was working on happened to be.

And he gives the first series of lectures on Darwin to a Japanese audience, and what Morse picked up immediately was that there was no scriptural tradition with which to measure Darwin’s ideas against. The same with China. So Morris said it’s really refreshing to lecture to people who don’t have any religious prejudices or previous scripturally-based stances that would make them hostile to Darwin.

Rissa de la Paz: So much for the global response to Darwin during his lifetime. What about now? The beauty is that Darwin needn’t come to us through the medium of translators, popularisers or even charismatic evangelisers. In our digital age, his published works are being made available directly on the Internet. John van Wyhe, from the University of Cambridge and director of Darwin Online.


John van Wyhe: Darwin Online consists of a larger amount of material about Charles Darwin than has ever been assembled before in one place, and helpfully I think it’s also freely available for everyone because it’s on the Internet. So it consists of all of the things he published in his lifetime, all of his books and his articles, and also things about Darwin. So it’s a huge collection of materials unrivalled by any other.

Darwin Online contains writings and texts but it also contains tens of thousands of pictures. So all of the illustrations from Darwin’s works and illustrations that Darwin was influenced by, they’re all collected together. But of course we’ve also upgraded Darwin into the digital age and we have Audio Darwin, which is Darwin’s works read with a computer voice so people can download them for free into their mp3 player or onto their computer, and this is good for people who have reading difficulties or people who just like to read in the car on the way to work.

The nicest audio product available on Darwin Online is an abridged reading of Darwin’s Beagle Diary from The Voyage of the Beagle, read by a professional actor who’s the same age that Darwin was when he was on The Voyage of the Beagle. And that’s also freely available for everyone, and it’s a wonderful taste of the young Darwin.


Rissa de la Paz: What sort of response has Darwin Online generated round the world?


John van Wyhe: The new website of Darwin Online was launched in October 2006, and this event met with absolutely unprecedented media attention. The site was reported in all the international newspapers and magazines and throughout the Internet, and on television and radio. So within 24 hours the story had reached an estimated 400 million people. You’ve gone from when it was basically the reserve of a small collection of experts who knew how to find these specialised objects, usually in a university library where you had to have a reader’s ticket, we’ve gone from a situation like that to where now anyone in the world with any qualifications or without any qualifications can access the original primary materials themselves.


Rissa de la Paz: Web resources such as Darwin Online and the Darwin Correspondence Project have offered a rich seam of material to mine, both by researchers and the wider public.


Peter Kjærgaard: We’re now in wonderfully privileged positions as researchers by having so much of Darwin’s correspondence online, all of his publications, his manuscripts and a growing number of reactions to Darwin, having all that available online for anyone to use, which has proved to be a remarkable resource for historians obviously, and we are all using it on an everyday basis.

But it’s also curious how many scientists are actually using a resource such as Darwin Online, and they’re quoting now from the original sources, which is great, rather than from other people quoting Darwin or from later edited editions and so forth. But I think perhaps what is even more important is that now everyone can see how Darwin was actually working through his correspondence, through his manuscripts, through his multiple publications, and that I think will have a tremendous impact on the public understanding of Darwin and more importantly on the public understanding of evolution. And we really need that.


Rissa de la Paz: And if future plans for Darwin Online bear fruit, then users will be able to access the material in a number of languages.


John van Wyhe: Darwin’s writings are of interest and of relevance to everyone, not just English speakers, and during Darwin’s lifetime his works were translated into a dozen languages and since his time into more than twenty languages. So one area I’d like to go in the future is to get as many of these translations of Darwin as possible, so already we have Darwin available in German, in French, in Russian, in Danish, and we want to expand, we want to have Darwin in Chinese, we want to have Darwin in Hebrew, Darwin in Portuguese, Darwin in Spanish, so of course there’s a long way to go still in order to make Darwin truly global and truly available to everyone for free.


Rissa de la Paz: Some might argue that the increased accessibility of Darwin’s works to the general public may lead to a bypassing of traditional Darwin scholarship. Others contend that such specialist research is vital to ensure that interpreting Darwin’s work is backed by an informed awareness of the social and historical context in which he operated. But parallel to this will be a fresh set of perspectives from demanding new audiences. Peter Kjærgaard.


Peter Kjærgaard: Two years ago we put all the Danish translations of Darwin online in the project Darwin in Denmark. We thought of the project and the resource as something which would only have scholarly interests and would be used by university students and historians. What really surprised us was the tremendous public interest in now reading Darwin for the first time in a long, long time and that everybody could read that, and actually they did and they started talking about it. But more importantly, and to my great surprise, was that our website with the Danish translations, with introductions to Darwin and with a few of the reactions turned into the major resource for teaching about Darwin and evolution in the Danish secondary school system. And what we’ve seen from reactions from both teachers and students over the last couple of years is that they’re actually using it and it’s making a difference. One of the most rewarding things for doing this, and one of the greatest surprises has been to see how schoolchildren have been using it and have been using it to, in some cases, prove their teachers wrong.


Rissa de la Paz: So the revolution continues.

Music: Variations on a Theme by Giuliani

Rissa de la Paz: And on that telling note we end this month’s podcast for Darwin Now.

The podcast was produced as a collaboration between the British Council and the Open University.





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