LONDON — When a local boy makes good it's natural to want to celebrate his achievements on important anniversaries. When that boy changes the course of history, well then, his whole country is likely to want to join in. That's the case in America, where on Feb. 12, 200 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born. That's also the case in Britain, where the very same day in the very same year Charles Darwin was born. People of faith, and even some inclined to atheism, might say this is not coincidence but proof there is a divine force in the universe.
Britain is awash in Darwiniana.
From his birthplace in Shrewsbury, Shrosphire, near the Welsh border, to Downe House in Kent where he wrote "On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection," Darwin is being celebrated. The airwaves are filled with Darwin programs and the normally sepulchral foyer of the British Library is full of the tape-recorded sound of birds cheeping, the background for its Darwin exhibit. There are lectures planned on Darwin's anti-slavery activities and the Church of England's website carries an essay praising Darwin's religious activities.
The birthday is also the occasion for a bit of push-back from scientists who feel discussion of the man and his work have been hijacked by controversies drummed up by America's religious right.
The focus of Britain's celebrations is an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum, where Darwin remains the presiding spirit. Walk into the great entry hall of the museum, and you can see his image in marble, sitting in contemplation, looking down on the massive skeleton of a brontosaurus.
The organizer of the exhibition — and "Darwin champion," as he describes himself on his telephone answering message — is Bob Bloomfield. This is the biggest-ever exhibition devoted to the naturalist, a collaborative effort among museums on both sides of the Atlantic. Bloomfield acknowledges being "absolutely aware of the American context in which Darwin is discussed." He expresses relief that he doesn't face the same political pressures.
Bloomfield is more understanding of the beliefs that motivate some Darwin critics than some of his colleagues. Like them, and like Charles Darwin for that matter, he grew up with a deep Protestant faith. Religious observance in his family was strict.
Like Darwin, as a young man he developed a passion for natural science. Thus began a personal exploration of the origins of life. The more he learned, the more he found the faith he had learned inside his family being challenged. "I am hugely sympathetic to people of faith," Bloomfield said. I was always aware of the sensitivities of my family."
The study of evolutionary biology has not taken away his capacity for religious feeling. "One thing I've retained is a sense of awe and amazement in the grandeur of nature." But it did make him question the doctrines of scripture: "The thing about evolution is it doesn't make man separate from nature, it doesn't give us dominion over it."
But beyond respect for the sensitivities of people's religious beliefs, Bloomfield isn't prepared to concede much. "You know in Darwin's day, the prevalent view of the world was that it was essentially static. The idea of species extinction or changes didn't exist. The earth we stood on was solid. Today we recognize changes in our planet. People have no difficulty in our age accepting plate tectonics. We understand global diseases mutate and change."
For Bloomfield and his fellow scientists, this is proof that Darwin's ideas are correct. "We start with science and evidence. We don't think intelligent design is science nor do we acknowledge the concept of irreducible complexity."
Evolutionary biologists have a new ally in this viewpoint. The Catholic Church, not historically friendly to Darwin's work, seems to be coming round to his ideas on the descent of man. Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told the London Times that the theory of evolution was not only compatible with Christian faith, but some of Darwin's thinking echoed that of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. "In fact, what we mean by evolution is the world as created by God," the Archbishop said.
The Vatican is marking Darwin's bicentenary with a conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University next month. Intelligent design has been relegated to a fringe meeting where it will be discussed as a cultural phenomenon, not as a scientific and theological theory.
"Darwin" continues at London's Natural History Museum until April 19. "Darwin and the Book that Shocked the World" continues at The British Library until March 22.
Also playing in London: Exhibits on empire.
Read more by Michael Goldfarb.