Darwin, Britain's Hero, Is Still Controversial In U.S. Science long ago proclaimed Darwin's theory of evolution a winner. And in honor of his 200th birthday, England is issuing commemorative stamps, coins — even quilts — in honor of its hero. But in parts of the U.S., Darwin's theories remain socially controversial.
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Darwin, Britain's Hero, Is Still Controversial In U.S.

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Darwin, Britain's Hero, Is Still Controversial In U.S.

Darwin, Britain's Hero, Is Still Controversial In U.S.

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Preparations are under way for a birthday party of heroic proportions in Britain. Thursday is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. His Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection revolutionized scientific notions about how different forms of life appeared on earth.

Weekend Edition and NPR's science desk are producing a series of stories about Darwin - his life, his work, and how his work is viewed in the 21st century. For today's report, NPR's Joe Palca went to England where he found a celebratory mood and very little controversy about the origin of species.

JOE PALCA: On a drizzly Friday afternoon last month, William Brown stepped to the podium at Lady Mitchell Hall at the University of Cambridge.

Professor WILLIAM BROWN (Master of Darwin College, Cambridge): Welcome to the 24th Darwin College Lecture Series.

PALCA: Yes, he said Darwin College - named for the great man himself. Brown is the college master.

Prof. BROWN: It won't have escaped your attention that this year is 2009, which is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species," so we had no choice. The subject had to be Darwin. ..TEXT: PALCA: This introduction, or one very much like it, will be repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the coming weeks and months as Britain celebrates the life and works of Charles Darwin - from his famous voyage on the Beagle through to his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection.

And public interest is intense. Not only was the 550-seat lecture hall packed, but a 150-seat overflow room itself overflowed.

And it's not just in the halls of higher learning. Darwin is drawing crowds all over. At the Natural History Museum in London, some 50,000 people have been to an exhibition on Darwin since it opened last November. Bob Bloomfield is special projects director at the museum. He described some of the other activities going on around the country.

Dr. BOB BLOOMFIELD (Special Projects Director, Natural History Museum, London): They range from major efforts by the Welcome Trust to place experimental education packs for evolution into every school across the United Kingdom through to tiny groups of knitters creating knitted responses to evolution.

PALCA: Knitted? Wait a minute. Wait a minute. A knitted response to evolution, how does that work?

Dr. BLOOMFIELD: Well, the group will create an artistic knitted elements which are evocative of evolution processes. And similarly, there's a very small group also doing quilts, which are doing a Bayeux tapestry of the Beagle voyage in essence.

PALCA: In addition to quilts honoring Darwin's accomplishments, there's a new two-pound coin, a stamp series, and hours of programming on the BBC. In other words, Darwin is not the controversial figure in the U.K. he remains in the U.S. Bloomfield says the reason for this is science has proven Darwin right.

Dr. BLOOMFIELD: Unless you want to disregard the weight of evidence, there's not really a controversy. Most difficulties come with people who have a fixed perspective on either the nature of time or the created nature of the natural world.

PALCA: But in Britain, even those who see the hand of a creator in the natural world don't seem to have a problem with Darwin. The Right Rev. Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a member of the House of Lords and was the bishop of Oxford for the Church of England.

Right Reverend Lord HARRIES (Member, House of Lords; Former Bishop, Oxford for the Church of England): Now you ask, what is the relationship between scientific theory and Christian faith? The simplest way of thinking is to say, well, they're really answering different questions.

Science is trying to address the question, how do things happen. And in answer to that, you get the theory of evolution. Things happened over millions and millions of years by a very gradual process through natural causes.

PALCA: But Harries says if you ask why did things happen, then you get a completely different answer. It's the why of life that belongs in the spiritual domain. Harries says the problems some religions have with Darwin and evolution come from a literal interpretation of the Bible. And he says, while the Bible contains profound truths, it's not word for word true.

Right Rev. Lord HARRIES: First of all, take the issue of the age of the Earth. I mean, do people really think that the universe is only 4,000 years old where every science - chemistry, paleontology, physics, astronomy - every single science points with huge amounts of evidence to the Earth being billions of years old and the universe being even more billions of years old.

So you just have to ask people, what do they make - do they think that the vast majority of scientists in every scientific discipline on Earth are liars?

PALCA: In the beginning - in other words, in 1859 when "On the Origin of Species" was published, the church was uncomfortable with Darwin's theories. But clearly, that position has changed.

So much so that recently, a spokesman for the Church of England wrote an article saying the church might owe Darwin an apology for its initial resistance to evolution. The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown says some people misread his comments to say the church was, in fact, apologizing.

Reverend Dr. MALCOLM BROWN (Director of Mission and Public Affairs, Church of England): I suggested than an apology might be owed, which is a slightly different thing. I don't have the authority to make it.

My point was that by raising doubts about Darwin at the beginning, by getting our first reaction wrong, even though as the Church of England, we pretty quickly got OK with Darwin, we legitimized, to some extent, later movements, particularly in the States in the early 20th century, to raise creationism as an ideology and make Darwin a whipping boy.

PALCA: The creationist ideology, now repackaged as a theory known as Intelligent Design, still runs strong in parts of America. At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, they actually have one of the 1,250 books that make up the first edition of "On the Origin of Species." The volume is worth between $100,000 and $200,000, so it makes sense to keep it locked up.

But unlike England, where it seems every scrap of Darwin memorabilia is on public display, this copy of the first edition stays mainly in the vault. Leonard Krishtalka is a paleontologist and head of the Natural History Museum on campus.

Dr. LEONARD KRISHTALKA (Director, Natural History Museum, University of Kansas): We're putting together an exhibit at the Natural History Museum on organisms, fossils and living organisms that Darwin collected or saw on his voyage of the Beagle to all the continents.

And as part of that exhibit, we have requested that the first edition be exhibited under secure conditions, and I think the library is still thinking about it.

PALCA: Shortly after this interview, the library decided it was OK to loan the book out. Krishtalka knows this book, with its notions about how life appeared on earth, is threatening to some people, and even though Kansas has grabbed headlines with its fights over teaching Intelligent Design in schools as an alternative to Darwin's theories, it's not a problem unique to Kansas.

Dr. KRISHTALKA: There are actually 34 states in the United States that have passed anti-evolution laws of one kind or another, whether it's stickers and textbooks or warnings that reading this book will be injurious to your mental health, whether it's California or Alabama or Louisiana.

For the record, in Kansas, the teaching of evolution in schools never stopped because all of the regulations and rules that the anti-evolution segment of the Kansas Board of Education tried to get through were never enacted.

PALCA: But the fight continues. It's not a scientific fight. Science has already proclaimed Darwin the winner. It's a social tug of war, a tug of war started 150 years ago and showing no signs of abating. Joe Palca, NPR News.

HANSEN: I went with Joe to Kansas to look for that original edition of "On the Origin of Species," and the first time I saw it - well, I didn't.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Unidentified Man: Oh, the book...

HANSEN: It's on the (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: You walked right pass it.

HANSEN: You're kidding. Can you show us?

Unidentified Man: Yeah. Come here.

HANSEN: There's a video of what Joe and I found on Weekend Soapbox. Take a look. Our blog is also a place where you can comment on our stories. Some of you did just that after last week's installment of our Darwin series.

Mary Galehouse(ph) enjoyed our talk with Keith Thomson about the young Darwin. She also informed us that her great-great uncle was a man named Conrad Martens who sailed with the scientist from Montevideo to Fiji on the HMS Beagle. She writes, he was an artist and did a number of paintings including one of the Beagle that is on the cover of Alan Moorehead's book, "Darwin and The Beagle."

Some of you wrote to say you weren't pleased that we concluded the installment with the 1953 This Is I Believe essay by Sir Charles Galton Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandson.

Sir CHARLES GALTON DARWIN: I believe intensely in the importance of the family as the continuing unit of human life. When the science of eugenics have been more fully developed, there may be a hope on those lines of really bettering humanity.

HANSEN: It was Sir Charles's support of eugenics, the belief that the human race could be improved through selective mating, that raised your protests. John Fredrickson(ph) of Chicago wrote, eugenics, of course, is an unscientific, thoroughly discredited discipline whose proponents included Hitler and others who perpetrated the Holocaust.

And Charles Jones(ph) in Pittsburgh echoed that idea, writing, Darwin himself realized that his conclusions regarding natural selection could be applied to the human race, but he also instantly recoiled from this idea knowing it could lead nowhere good.

We welcome your criticisms, your praise and just about everything else. Come to our blog, npr.org/soapbox and comment. Or you can reach us by going to our Web site, npr.org and clicking on the Contact Us link.

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