Among the icons of science, Newton is admired and Einstein revered, but Darwin is liked. This is rather puzzling on the face of it. His theories concerning organic evolution, and the satellite doctrines that have attached themselves to his name - Social Darwinisms of the political Right and Left, eugenics, robber-baron capitalism, anarchism, sociobiology - haven't ceased to be controversial since the publication in 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. More than a century later, Darwin's name continues to divide not only the devout from the doubting, but also liberals from conservatives and biologists from social scientists. Various Darwinisms stand accused of complicity in scientific racism and sexism for having asserted that inequalities between white and black and between men and women were the ineradicable outcome of nature rather than the insidious work of culture. A new book on avowedly Darwinian approaches to psychology, linguistics or literary theory can still ignite a bonfire of partisan reviews and counter-reviews. Historians of science have in the past few decades meticulously documented how closely intertwined Darwin's biological theories were with the most dismal strands of political economy, its Malthusian insistence on the inevitability of hunger and death. Yet Darwin the man remains irresistibly sympathetic, charming the most hard-boiled reader with candid doubts about his own arguments, stories about his pet dogs, or a flowering of Miltonian metaphor amid a dry description of gaps in the fossil record.
LRB 8 May 2003 | PDF Download