Friday 12 February 2016

Celebrating intellectual bravery

The other Darwin
Today is Darwin day, so let's celebrate!
Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end! Zoomania

The Darwin I most admire for 'intellectual bravery' though, is possbly not Charles but Erasmus, his grandfather, and author of the quote above from Zoomania in the eighteen century - a book ahead of it's times in more than just it's title.  This quote is a description of 'evolution' one hundred years before the word existed in it's modern meaning.  Apparently the word does not appear in the original text of 'The origin of Species' at all, although it does appear in Erasmus Darwin's 'Zoomania', with a completely different meaning:
'The world…might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings…rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by the Almighty fiat.' Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia (1801)
Alfred Wallace is 'best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin's writings in 1858', shortly before the more famous 'On the origins of species' by Charles Darwin.

So why is it that the rich, dashing, young(ish) Charles Darwin, fresh back from wild adventures circumnavigating the world was able to capture the imagination of the scientific community and then the world, with his blockbuster book?  Well, it's too long a story to write here, and you'll find it elsewhere.

His grandad displayed much of the GRIT of his grandson.  He is perhaps to be admired more for his 'intellectual bravery', working with poets and fellow 'Lunaticks' of Birmingham, including many of the leading scientific minds of the time, as well as philosophers, educators, and political theorists.  He was also a bit of a poet - Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Darwin "the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded Man."

His views on evolution and other matters were seen as far more 'outlandish' in his time, perhaps so controversial that he was written out of history for nearly two centuries.  Like all great 'Intellectually brave' figures, he was more interested in changing the world, not just interpreting it.  He was the subject of ridicule and satire, despite his underrated achievements, deserves the praise for 'Intellectual Bravery'.

If you've not come across him, look him up - it's a great story too.

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