This evening I was finally able to attend one of the Darwin lectures sponsored by the University of Cambridge, in celebration of the bicentennial anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. The lecture was delivered by Prof. Jim Secord, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project.
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I got to Lady Mitchell Hall (LHM) – the venue- at about ten past five, but was promptly told at the door that the hall was full – and this was a good 20 minutes before the lecture’s schedule! Instead, I was told to go to the "Little Hall," which was directly opposite LHM. Even Little Hall was almost full, but I managed to squeeze-in in one of the pews. It was my first time to attend such an event – and was quite surprised at how many attendees there were. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. However, instead of a stage, in front of the room was a large projection screen. Latecomers had no choice but to content themselves with a digital broadcast of the actual event unfolding at the other hall.
The title of the talk is "Global Darwin." Prof. Secord started his talk with a photo of the great man himself – Darwin, "with his grizzled beard and deep sad eyes, appears today as a ubiquitous icon, his image appearing on posters, book jackets, banknotes, and postage stamps from around the world." He discussed Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his numerous correspondences with the contemporary thinkers of his day, how his ideas sparked debates in the intellectual arena, the translation of his work into various languages in the world within the period of 1860-1970. It was an almost one-hour talk, and I couldn’t possibly recount the details here. But one thing I’ve realized, after attending this talk, is how poorly I’ve perceived Darwin in the past. I’ve learned about the concept of evolution and natural selection in school, but I guess I’ve never really pondered on its implications. Evolution wasn’t even something we debated on in school. I think it’s likely because we have a tendency to deal with issues in a rather dichotomous manner: heaven and hell, good and evil…evolution and creation. There is no middle ground.
I entirely agree with the speaker with his main point – that Darwin’s ideas left a lot of room for ambiguities and interpretations. But there’s the beauty of it – by placing the spotlight on some of humanity’s greatest mysteries, we turn to science to give us the answers. We challenge old ideas and make way for new ones.
Perhaps, the shock of the evening is to learn how through the years people have misquoted Darwin and interpreted his ideas in a different way. And as it turned out, people are still misquoting him. Etched on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences were the words, "It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." Well, I’ve not read the Origin of Species, but I take Prof. Secord’s word that there is no such quote in Darwin’s books (for those who are tenacious, all his publications are available online at www.darwin-online.org.uk). In Prof. Secord’s words, Darwin wasn’t the type of scientist who liked "sound bites."
The quote sends a feel-good message, though, for those of us who are neither strong nor intelligent – and I do think some people will derive some inspiration from knowing that they can survive the hardest of times if they make themselves adaptable (plus of course they’d think, a scientist said it!!!). Perhaps Darwin wouldn’t mind so much how that quote has "evolved," don’t you think? 😉