January 13, 2006

Darwin as national hero in Britain vs. pariah here

Americans, who see Charles Darwin as, at best, a weapon with which to club their political and religious enemies, might be surprised to learn that the British ten pound banknote features Darwin on the back. I think several things account for Darwin's high place in the affections of the British vs. his low place in the opinions of Americans, where he is repeatedly grouped with those dubious foreigners Marx and Freud instead of with, say, uncontroversial heroes like Einstein and Edison.

- Simple nationalism: Darwin was English and never even visited the U.S., unlike Einstein who lived here as a beloved icon for a couple of decades. Darwin was not knighted, but he was buried in Westminster Abbey, a higher honor.

- Accessibility: Darwin didn't travel much or appear in public, but he carried on an enormous correspondence with ordinary people interested in plants and animals, which makes up a big fraction of the English. His books are full of citations of observations made by regular folks, along the lines of: "Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier from Lincolnshire, kindly writes to explain that the striped newt ..." A large number of ordinary Britons treasured a letter of grateful acknowledgement of their contribution to his work from the greatest scientist of the 19th Century.

- Intellectual descent: Darwin's place in the lineage of liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith is more clear to the British, whereas conservatives in America often just don't get the connection between Smith's economics, of which they approve, and Darwin's biology, of which they don't.

- Family and friends: Darwin was embedded in a web of family connections that legitimized and added glamour to his name within Britain. His mother and wife were Wedgwoods, which is still a great commercial brand name in expensive china, and the Wedgwood family provided political and social leadership well into the 20th Century. A reader adds:

And into the 21st, in fact. Anthony Wedgwood Benn [a.k.a., Tony Benn, the grand old man of Labour's left wing], who served in the cabinets of two Prime Ministers, was a Member of Parliament until 2001. His son, Hilary, is a member of Tony Blair's cabinet.

Darwin's worshipful younger half-cousin and sometimes collaborator Sir Francis Galton, outlived him by three highly productive decades. Three of Darwin's sons were knighted for service to science, and his grandson Bernard was the leading golf writer in Britain into the 1960s. The Darwins became in-laws of the Keyneses and other distinguished families. Similarly, the son of Darwin's bulldog, TH Huxley, son married into the Arnold family (educator Thomas of Rugby School and poet Matthew of "Dover Beach") and his sons Julian and Aldous were leading intellectual figures through the middle of the 20th Century. But this network stayed mostly within England.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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