For some reason I had always pictured Darwin as an aloof and solitary figure. The lone genius conducting experiments in his isolated country garden. Going around the exhibition I discovered that this image couldn't be further from the truth. Not only was Darwin a committed family man, he represents almost a model of how to do collaborative science. His work depended on cooperating and exchanging ideas with other scientists of the day. He maintained a large and regular stream of correspondence with all sorts of experts across the world and gathered lots of useful information from dog breeders, pigeon fanciers, horse breeders and the like. In later life he had close working relationships with some of his children, several of whom went on to be prominent scientists themselves.
A good illustration of this collaborative approach is Darwin's relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace. Famously, it was Wallace independently coming up with his own theory of natural selection that forced Darwin into publishing his. So you might think that they would see each other as rivals and feel resentment towards one and other. Darwin for being "trumped", Wallace for not getting enough of the credit. This was not the case. They were, and remained, supportive of each others work. The search for scientific truth was more important than the egos of these generous spirited men.
So the Natural History Museum's Big Idea exhibition gave me an important reminder that the development of ideas, of human knowledge, while owing a great deal to individual genius, is really a massive collaborative project. We are in debt to Charles Darwin. But we are also in debt to those who helped Darwin and those who Darwin helped
In particular, I should also mention John Stevens Henslow.
Revd. Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, was a teacher and mentor to Charles Darwin. He was important in shaping the ideas of the young Darwin, strengthening his interest in natural history, supporting his early work and introducing him to other scientists of the time. But Henslow was critical in one other respect.
One of the strongest impressions I got from the exhibition was just how key to Darwin's ideas, and why he became a naturalist in pursuit of those ideas, was his five year round the world voyage on HMS Beagle. This was a fantastic opportunity for a young man just out of university. What Darwin did and saw during that journey turned him into the man whose birthday we are celebrating 200 years later.
It was John Henslow that got Darwin the place on the Beagle.
Darwin's primary legacy is of course a scientific one. But a lot of Liberal Democrats writing about Darwin on blogs etc. seem to be obsessing about Darwin and religion. I think, beyond the science, there are other important things we can learn from Darwin's life. Two of these are:
- That the development of ideas is a collaborative process so it pays to put mechanisms in place to support that collaboration.
- How essential it is for those who are in a position to do so to provide opportunities for and to mentor the young.