This February marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

This February marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The Bristol Festival of Ideas is celebrating Darwin’s birthday throughout the year with new books, commissioned poems, the 2009 Lost World Read project and lectures and seminars. Andrew Kelly writes about why Darwin matters today…

Charles Darwin’s work has led to medical, agricultural and technical advances and new knowledge in biology, genetics, psychology and embryology. In solving the ‘mystery of mysteries’ as his friend John Herschel called the origin of species, he showed how humanity is connected to the rest of the natural world, an enchanting, if sometimes brutal place, where, as he said: “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.

One of the great joys of the past year has been discovering Darwin’s wonderful prose, his clear thinking and his spirit of inquiry. I’ve had the chance, too, to read Darwin’s successors, who have challenged, tested, refined, extended and endorsed the theory of evolution by natural selection. What is remarkable from all this is how much Darwin got right, not the limited amount he got wrong.

Ever since the creation of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s which bought together Darwinianism, Mendelian genetics and the concept of gradual evolution there has been a scientific consensus regarding the validity of Darwin’s rigorously tested theory. The recent work of Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge on punctuated equilibrium, Sean Carroll’s Evo-Devo (evolutionary development) and his testing of evolutionary theory through DNA evidence, and Neil Shubin’s discovery of fossil fish to show how life moved from sea to land 375 million years ago, have further confirmed and extended Darwin’s work.

Despite the work of respected scientists like these – and I’ve given just a small sample – Darwin’s theory continues to be challenged. Conservative religion provides the main focus of opposition and it is harming science education. Seventy per cent of white evangelical Protestants in America believe that life has existed in its present form since the beginning of time. In 2009, the Theos poll for the Rescuing Darwin project, found that 22 per cent of Britons who completed the survey believed in creationism or intelligent design (ID). Ten per cent of these believed in what is termed ‘young earth creationism’ where God created the earth in the last 10,000 years. Although around half of the respondents either thought Darwin’s theory was definitely or probably true, more than 25 per cent were too confused to commit to a view.

We are clearly failing in the teaching of science if the kind of figures reported in the Theos survey are accurate. Is it really the case that nearly half of the population are either confused about evolution or believe in creationism and ID despite all the evidence? There is not one peer-reviewed paper on ID, for example compared to the over 100,000 peer-reviewed papers published on neo-Darwinian evolution since 1973.

The ‘harsh’ Darwinians – those people who misinterpreted his work to serve their own agendas (Social Darwinists, eugenicists, the Nazi party and the like) – have largely been defeated. There’s an increasing awareness of the positive role of cooperation and altruism within the evolutionary process, and that human beings have minds that are capable of resisting the laws of survival of the fittest and natural selection where these act against accepted morality. This is in keeping with the character of Darwin himself, a humane person committed to reform and a fervent opponent of slavery.

Darwin knew the natural world could be a cruel place. But there is great reverence for nature in his work and he and his followers never ceased to marvel at the wonders of even the humblest form. His colleague Joseph Hooker, for example, inspired by Darwin’s work, wrote: “I must own I had always looked on worms as among the most helpless and unintelligent members of the creation; and am amazed to find that they have domestic life and public duties.”

With his love of the natural world, Darwin is likely to have been horrified by the current rate of extinction due to human activity. Solving the ‘mystery of mysteries’ was but the first step. Thomas Hardy said of Darwin’s work: “Few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical; that it logically involved a re-adjustment of altruistic morals by enlarging as a necessity of rightness the application of what has been called ‘The Golden Rule’ beyond the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom.”

That leap is still to come. However, research since Darwin’s time has not only vindicated much of what he put forward, but extended it further. His great work comes down to us, 150 years on, with all its power intact. He matters because he told us where we came from and how connected we are to the rest of the natural world. The responsibility is our’s to make the next leap.

About the author/

Andrew Kelly is Director of Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He founded and led At-Bristol; Brief and Animated Encounters Festivals and Digital Arts Development Agency, and is currently Director of the Bristol Great Reading Adventure and the Bristol Festival of Ideas. He is the author of 12 books. He is currently directing projects on Charles Darwin, and BAC 100, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1910.