There is I think something a little special about living, as I do, in the town where Darwin was born and spent his formative years, exploring the fascinating geology and natural history of the local area. The local authorities clearly think so too, and this is good, because some years ago members of the local geological society were complaining that local tourism was putting too much emphasis on a person who never existed and ignoring the connection with one of the greatest of all scientists.
Nevertheless, the Darwin celebrations make me a little uneasy. Celebration of someone’s life can spill over – or seem to spill over – into adulation. This makes it easy for creationists and the unintelligent “design” proponents (like these local jokers who think that they are offering Darwin’s home town “a balanced discussion of the science”) to misrepresent evolutionary theory as “Darwinism” and pretend that scientists are following a body of knowledge laid down for all time by its founder, as in religion or homeopathy.
Evolutionary theory is not the invention of one mind. I’m not just thinking about the people on whose work Darwin drew, although I feel that Alfred Russel Wallace may have been unjustly neglected. Most of all, in all the things I have seen, heard and read so far in this Darwin celebration there has been a lack of emphasis on the fact that evolution is an active research programme, more vital to science than ever, rather than just a discovery. It is essential to research in biology, geology and the human sciences, and advanced by hundreds of thousands of researchers, many of them working actively today.
Over the past few months I have written several times in answer to creationists in newspapers and elsewhere (for example, here) and have tried to emphasise the research that is going on, the new knowledge that is always being found and the questions that are being answered. There is just nothing to compare with this on the creationist side, but most of the general public has no idea of this. Evolution is not simply Darwin, but many, many others. How can we put this across, particularly that the unanswered questions are not a weakness but the sign of a scientific field at its most vigorous? There are many exciting blogs, but these are unlikely to come to the notice of most non-scientific members of the public. [bpsdb]