Celebrated on 12 February, the day of his birth, Darwin Day was created ’to inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles embodied in Charles Darwin.’ It celebrates not only Darwin and scientists like him, but science itself, and the values central to it. As well as being a tool for understanding, and the heart of medicine and wellness, science celebrates the joy of curiosity, the wonder of observation, and the possibilities of humankind. Darwin Day also recalls and explores the role of science in changing perceptions and saving lives; shifting our perspective on the world around us, and our place in it.
Charles Darwin, founder of evolutionary biology, profoundly changed the way people saw the world, understood the past, and made sense of humanity itself. With the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin laid out the concepts of evolution by natural selection, and established a discipline which brought scientific and historical methods together. Adopting the word coined by T.H. Huxley, one of his most prominent defenders, where religion was concerned Darwin ultimately came to describe himself as ‘agnostic’.
Evolutionary biology emphasised careful observation and comparison, as well as the evaluation of differing interpretations of evidence in explaining change over time. Following the science where it led, even where it challenged commonly held beliefs, epitomised Darwin’s devotion to his discipline, and enabled a theory which underpins our understanding of biology – and history – today.
The figures below are just a small selection of those who interacted with, were inspired by, or have continued to respond to the theories and legacies of Charles Darwin.
The pioneering sociologist and freethinker Harriet Martineau became acquainted with Charles Darwin during the 1830s, long before the publication of those works which would make him a household name. She was close to Charles’ brother, Erasmus, and the freethinking circle within which they lived and debated has been credited as having a significant influence on the direction of Charles Darwin’s thought. Martineau described him as ‘the simple, childlike, painstaking, effective Charles Darwin’, while Martineau was to Darwin ‘a wonderful woman.’ Remarkably, and despite his admiration for women like Martineau, Darwin never lost his belief in the innate intellectual superiority of men. She was, though, a living rebuttal to this notion. When, as a young woman, Martineau’s family had fallen into poverty on the collapse of her father’s business, Harriet took up needlework and writing to help make ends meet. She recalled this period of ‘being thrown… on our own resources’ as one which enabled her to ‘have truly lived instead of vegetated’, and to have made useful contributions to the world at large. Like Darwin, Martineau was a meticulous observer and recorder. She was also one of those who responded to the science-shaken foundations of Victorian religious belief – and to her own rigorous intellectual inquiry – by embracing a humanist philosophy. On reading On the Origin of Species for the first time, she wrote ecstatically to George Jacob Holyoake:
What a book it is! — overthrowing revealed religion on one hand & Natural (as far as causes and design are concerned) on the other. The range and mass of knowledge take away one’s breath.
Alfred Russel Wallace was a friend of Darwin and a fellow naturalist. He independently conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection, and published some of his works jointly with Darwin the year before the publication of On the Origin of Species. As well as being one of the leading evolutionary thinkers of the 19th century, Wallace was an opponent of the concepts of eugenics, and a supporter of women’s suffrage. Wallace’s extensive fieldwork made him acutely aware of the impact of humankind on the natural environment. In 1911 he wrote that:
during the past century, which has seen those great advances in the knowledge of Nature of which we are so proud, there has been no corresponding development of a love or reverence for her works; so that never before has there been such widespread ravage of the earth’s surface by destruction of native vegetation and with it of much animal life… and this has been done by all the greatest nations claiming the first place for civilisation and religion!
Although, to the bafflement of many colleagues, Wallace publicly engaged with spiritualism from the 1860s, that too was prompted by his investigative tendencies, and his legacy remains an important one for science and for humanism. Wallace’s work provided the impetus for Darwin to publish on natural selection, and Wallace made significant contributions to science of his own. He also emphasised the need for care and caution in applying the concepts of natural selection to humankind, Wallace’s own deep humanity anticipating some of the ethical issues overlooked by many others.
Thomas Henry Huxley was a scientist and educator, who sought to make the study of science more widely accessible, and increase its prominence in public life. Huxley, who sat on numerous commissions and professional bodies throughout his life, also did much to steward science from being a gentleman’s occupation to a profession, and was influential in introducing the study of biological sciences into universities. He was also a fierce advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, earning the nickname ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, as well as coining the term ‘agnostic’ in 1869 to describe the position of reasoned, accepted unknowing – later adopted by Darwin himself. In a debate with Bishop Wilberforce in 1860, in which Wilberforce asked on which side of Huxley’s family he was descended from a monkey, Huxley retorted that he would rather be related to an ape than to a man like the Bishop, who would misuse his skills in speaking to introduce such a jibe and obscure the truth. The two nonetheless remained on friendly terms.
Lydia Ernestine Becker was a suffragist, science advocate, freethinker, and correspondent of Charles Darwin. She wrote to Darwin to share her own observations in the field of botany, and sent him a copy of her 1864 work Botany for Novices: a Short Outline of the Natural System of Classification of Plants. In doing so, she hoped that Darwin might:
…look kindly on [her] endeavour to make plain by familiar language and illustration the general principles of the subject to which it relates… for it is precisely those who have attained the greatest eminence in the pursuit of science who might be expected to feel pleasure in the thought that others however far removed from them, should be led to share in some degree, the happiness which the study of nature is capable of affording.
A leading advocate of women’s rights, Becker also applied her observations of plant life to arguments against notions of innate differences between men and women, particularly in areas of intellect, capacity, and sexual behaviour.
The remarkable writer, journalist, war correspondent, traveller, and humanist Lady Florence Dixie wrote to Charles Darwin in late 1880, offering her own field studies for his consideration. Dixie’s letter concerned the tuco-tuco, a species of rodent, which Darwin had written was almost entirely subterranean. Dixie wrote:
I am sure it will be interesting to you to know that tho’ this may be the usual habits of the tucutuco [sic] that there are exceptions. In 1879, I spent 6 months on the Pampas and in the Cordillera Mountains of Southern Patagonia and during my wanderings over the plains I have had occasion to notice in places tenanted by the tucutuco, as many as five or six of these little animals at a time outside their burrows. This was on moonlight nights, and I cld. not possibly be mistaken as they wld. frequently come within a yard of the spot on which I was lying.
Dixie signed off, ‘Trusting you will forgive the seeming presumption on my part’. But in spite of this gentle apology, Florence Dixie was, like Harriet Martineau before her, distinctly unafraid to challenge received wisdom of any kind. This was nowhere truer than when it came to the oppression of women she saw as sanctioned by biblical teachings. In Towards Freedom, Dixie declared: ‘Science has absolutely disproved the teaching of superstition’s inventions. It has broken the legs of the Bible’. As such, Dixie argued, reason and compassion should form the basis of our philosophy. This humanist stance was summed up in another line from Towards Freedom: ‘The service of man to fellow-creatures is a nobler and more satisfying religion than that which incites to injustice and cruelty’.
Winifred Clara Cullis was a physician, academic, educator, and the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a medical school. She was a member of the West London Ethical Society, which emphasised living well based not on any ‘system of supernatural rewards and punishments, but on the nature of man as a rational and social being’. Cullis toured the world extensively to lecture on the application of science to human wellbeing. She believed that society’s role was to enable every person to make the most of their capacities, a duty for which inclusive, honest education was essential. She co-founded the British Federation of University Women, and the International Federation of University Women, and served as President of both.
In her work for public health, Cullis was careful to emphasise the human beings behind scientific discovery, and advances in healthcare and medicine. Very much in line with the spirit of Darwin Day, she highlighted the inspiration and motivation which could come from sharing the past achievements – and struggles – of others. ‘Everyone,’ Cullis wrote ‘should know something of these stories, but often they remain untold and unknown. If this were not so, discoveries won, sometimes at the expense of the lives of the investigators, would be made more use of, and other adventurers would be stimulated to go on voyages of discovery and so in their turn make contributions to this gradually increasing store of knowledge’.
My ambition is to create a philosophy for the twentieth century that shall be all one piece. There cannot be a decent philosophy, there cannot be a decent science, without humanity.
Jacob Bronowski was a mathematician, historian, and polymath, whose wide-ranging interests saw him influence diverse areas of public life; from researching cleaner fuel, to consulting for UNESCO. Bronowski believed wholeheartedly in the compatibility of science and the arts, and their twin importance as expressions of human imagination. He advanced the idea that science could flourish only in a society governed by humane values, including freedom, tolerance, and honesty, which would also serve to temper the dangers of humankind’s striving to ‘master’ the natural world. This central philosophy was powerfully displayed in Bronowski’s lauded thirteen-part television series The Ascent Of Man. Alluding to Darwin’s Descent of Man, Bronowski explored the history of humanity through advances in scientific understanding, making complex themes accessible and engaging.
Richard Doll was a physician and epidemiologist known for his pioneering work in demonstrating the link between smoking and cancer. In recognition of his work, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) named a building after Doll (a former Chair of the Institute), and the ICR is today home to the Centre for Evolution and Cancer, which applies the principle of natural selection to the understanding and treatment of cancer.
Richard Doll was also the founder, with his wife Dr. Joan Faulkner, of the Agnostics Adoption Society, which sought to open up adoption to the non-religious at a time when many agencies required the profession of religious faith. In addition to his work on cancer, he conducted influential research into the contraceptive pill, radiation, and gastric ulcers. Living to a grand age himself, Doll believed that old people should take risks, and used his ninety-third year to ride a camel in the Arabian desert, fly in a glider, and climb a jungle tree in Australia.
Joseph Sidney Weiner was a South Africa-born biologist and humanist, who helped to expose the ‘Piltdown Man’ as a forgery in 1953. As well as being a major contributor to the field of applied physiology, Weiner was significant in developing anthropology as a discipline. He founded the Society for the Study of Human Biology, and was President of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1963-1964.
The Piltdown Man was a paleoanthropological fraud in which bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. The exposure of the Piltdown Man as a forgery discredited a so-called ‘missing link’ in human evolution, lending weight to the Darwinian theory.
Watch: The Missing Link That Wasn’t – ‘the evolution of evolutionary thinking’
Barbadian academic and doctor Kenneth Stuart led a life dedicated to promoting advances in human health and human rights, and was a longtime Patron of Humanists UK. He helped to establish the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, and as a speaker on public health was noted for making complicated subjects accessible. During his remarkable career, Stuart was medical adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, and served on boards for the Wellcome Trust, and the World Health Organisation. He was knighted in 1977. Underpinning his work was Stuart’s humanist conviction that rational thinking and compassion were central to ethical and medical issues alike. In 2003, he joined several other Humanists UK Patrons in writing to the Prime Minister seeking greater recognition of Darwin Day as a national holiday in the United Kingdom. Later that decade, Stuart was among those humanist scientists who urged the Government to add evolution to England’s primary school curriculum.
Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, author, and Patron of Humanists UK. His writings include Creation: The Origin of Life, and A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes. Acutely aware of the historical (and contemporary) uses of genetic theory to support racism and eugenics, Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality takes aim at pseudoscientific arguments used to justify racism and racial stereotypes, both historically and today, using biology – and socio-economics – to challenge the harmful use of racist tropes presented as fact. The book emerged from Rutherford’s 2019 Voltaire Lecture for Humanists UK, ‘The Return of Scientific Racism‘.
Watch: How to Argue with a Racist