Monday, November 23, 2009

John Wilkins with a nice post on why we shouldn't get carried away with our appreciation of Darwin.

Let us by all means celebrate the man and his achievements. But let us not make him into a demigod, either (nor any scientific hero – if Pasteur discarded 90% of his data, and he did, that doesn’t belittle his contributions to science, and if Mendel made his data fit his model, and he probably didn’t but might have, that doesn’t change one whit the facts of genetics as we now understand them). Darwin did not invent the ball point pen, antibiotics, the iPhone (all hail the Prophet Jobs!), or BLTs, either. What he did is what he did, and more power to him.

What we need to know is that Darwin founded not a theory, or even a set of doctrines, but instead he is the focal point of a series of traditions that converged in his ideas and writings, and which have derived from him. He did not invent biogeography; de Candolle is a good candidate for that. He did not invent natural selection, although he was perhaps the first to think of it as an agent for evolutionary change (excepting Patrick Mathew, who buried his light under a naval architectural bushel). He did not invent genetics (although the term gene comes from his notion of a pangene, and he probably set many people thinking about heredity in a serious manner). He did not give us a mathematical theory; that was William Castle, JBS Haldane, RA Fisher and Sewall Wright, among others to this day.

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