Since Darwin's Era, Following Science Got Complex

A portrait of Darwin i i

When Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the people who could afford to purchase a copy were fairly educated. It was before science was so specialized, and readers were able to keep up with science enough to realize how remarkable his theory was. hide caption

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A portrait of Darwin

When Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the people who could afford to purchase a copy were fairly educated. It was before science was so specialized, and readers were able to keep up with science enough to realize how remarkable his theory was.

The digital revolution has given billions of people around the globe nearly instantaneous access to anything even close to a scientific breakthrough. But that doesn't mean people would recognize a scientific breakthrough if one occurred.

Yet consider the reception for On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin's first attempt to articulate his theory of evolution by natural selection. It outraged some people in the church and in the scientific community, as well. Anything that challenges accepted dogma will have that effect.

But unlike today, the discussion of Darwin's theories was primarily conducted among the intelligentsia of the day, for a very simple reason: "Books were pretty expensive," says Jim Secord, director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University. "They were something that a gentleman could afford, but they certainly couldn't buy dozens of books a year or anything like that. A book like The Origin of Species cost the equivalent of a working man's weekly wage."

And the people who could afford to buy the book were people who were, by and large, very well-educated.

"That fraction of people who figured that they could and should keep more or less up to date with what was happening in geology, in botany, in zoology, even in physics and mathematics is a much bigger fraction than it is today," says Steven Shapin, a Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

And it didn't take most educated people very long to realize that Darwin had produced a theory that was remarkably important.

But Shapin argues that science has gotten a lot more technical and specialized in the past century and a half, and no one can really stay up with every field of research.

"So we hear about scientific claims," says Shapin. "A very large fraction of the population now knows, through electronic media, about Dolly the [cloned] sheep, about the human genome, about what's going on in the latest finding with climate change," he says.

But that's not the same as understanding the implications of this information.

"We hear about scientific findings," says Shapin. "But the proportion that can evaluate them and follow along with them, as opposed to hearing about them, is very, very small."

Shapin says that since people can't be completely conversant with the relevant science, "They're looking for an answer to the question, 'Who can we rely on? Who's speaking the truth? Who can we trust?' "

And that's not an easy question to answer, either.

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