Darwin at the Abbey

Posted on February 12, 2011


Today marks the birthday of that loved and hated British naturalist, Charles Darwin. I came across a sermon by N.T. Wright which happens to convey some of the attitudes toward Darwin, and how they appear to be more intense here in America compared to Jolly Ol’ England.

When I worked here at (Westminster) Abbey one of the most frequently asked questions was ‘Is it true Charles Darwin is buried here?’ – mostly by Americans for whom Darwin was either the great hero or the great villain. On one occasion I came across a bunch of flowers and a card which said ‘Mr Darwin, we love you’, signed by a bunch of schoolchildren. On another occasion a lady who had just walked right over the tomb asked me if Darwin was buried here, and when I said, ‘Madam, I think you just stepped on him’ she replied ‘Good!’

What’s that all about?

It seems that in Europe, Darwin’s name can be evoked without stirring a great deal of controversy. I guess it’s like mentioning Einstein or other scientists. Wright brings the issue up later in his sermon and makes the important distinction between the facts and the worldviews constructed with particular interpretations of those facts. Again, a nuance which seems to be lost when the heat is turned up on the debate:

Get the biology right; fine. But don’t assume that you can read off social ethics and imperatives from that biology. The two need to be separated out, so that we can have the real debate, which is about whether we are creatures of blind chance, programmed to be selfish, or whether we live in God’s world, called to wise and humble service.

I don’t think America has moved on to that part of the debate. Almost half of us do not even think the scientists have gotten the biology right, and Darwin’s opponents continue to try to tie him to every social evil, including the Holocaust and school shootings. Separating the science from the emotional responses tied to the culture war may prove to be more difficult than finding ancient, frozen DNA and using it to reproduce an extinct animal.

Posted in: Charles Darwin