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University of Oklahoma plans a Darwin celebration


Ben Fenwick January 22nd, 2009

Amidst all the opinion about Charles Darwin's famous "On the Origin of the Species," the book that gave us the concepts of natural selection and evolution, there's a little-known fact. It doesn't me...

Darwin-letter-with-fox-illu

Amidst all the opinion about Charles Darwin's famous "On the Origin of the Species," the book that gave us the concepts of natural selection and evolution, there's a little-known fact.

It doesn't mention apes. The book discusses pigeons, ostriches, ants, bees, whales, even monkeys " peripherally " five times. While each line is rife with implication, in no place does it say humans came from apes or monkeys.

GLITTERING CENTERPIECE
UPROAR

"That's how I know students who haven't done their reading," said Piers Hale, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma's Department of the History of Science.

Darwin did write about "the creator," however. Within OU's History of Science Collections is a complete library of Darwin first editions. There, one can glimpse that line in the original. Hale said Darwin's reaction to atheistic interpretations of his theory can only be known by studying both the first and second editions, and letters Darwin wrote in between.

GLITTERING CENTERPIECE
The Darwin collection is a glittering centerpiece to OU's celebration of the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of "Origin"'s publication. The celebration will include public lectures, symposia and special classes at OU, in which students can attend lecture after lecture by scholars regarding Darwin, his theories and the issues surrounding the two.

Kerry Magruder, the curator of the History of Science Collections, said the university is one of the few in the world with a complete collection of Darwin's works in first edition.

Some, including a first edition of Darwin's report on the HMS Beagle's expedition, during which he saw the wonders of flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands, are priceless. OU is one of the few places in the world with complete copies. The work is being digitally scanned so that it may be available for scholars around the world, Magruder said.

"You can count the collections that have all the first editions on one hand," Magruder said.

The value of OU's complete Darwin collection can only be measured in what humanity means to itself, Hale said. As for Darwin, his own statements appear to indicate that he believed evolution gave him a glimpse into the mind of God. Hale points to a crowning passage at the end of "Origin:"

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

UPROAR
Who "breathed" the life into the forms? Hale said if the implication had been clear to Darwin, it may not have been to others. The release of "Origin" on Nov. 24, 1859, caused an uproar Darwin may not have anticipated, Hale said.               

Scholars, the Church of England and other institutions seized on the notion that humans evolved through a natural process every bit as mundane as pigeons laying eggs or mold growing spores, and weren't created one at a time by God.

"He thought he'd been misread. He wrote in private correspondence that he'd never intended to be read 'atheistically,'" Hale said.

By the time of the second edition in 1860, Darwin added, ""¦having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms"¦" to the passage. But the die had already been cast, and continues rolling to this day.

There is, in fact, a single line in "Origin" that speaks to such implications, like a fortune broken from a cookie.

"Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," Darwin writes in chapter 14.

Hale said that such a collection exists in Oklahoma "goes to show that Oklahoma is not as backwards in many senses." He said when students come to his classes on evolution they are switched-on, alert and deeply interested in the subject.

On the other hand, he called the religious debate on evolution, and in Oklahoma in particular, "perplexing." Hale, from England, said the furor might be an unintended consequence of our country's separation of church and state. Because religions here aren't allowed to present their views in school, they might feel cut off from debate, he said.

"In England we have a state religion. We still have the Church of England," Hale said. "But we also have religious studies classes in our schools, and that is a venue where students and teachers can talk about theological issues. Because of the separation of Church and State in this country, there is no real venue for people to talk about religious aspects in their schools."

"In England," he added, "the debate about evolution was over 150 years ago."

So settled is the debate, Hale said, that the scientist's bearded likeness was minted on the 10 pound note.

"You trust in somebody else on your money," he said, smiling. "Ben Fenwick

Free .pdf copy of the first edition of On the Origin of the Species, at the University of New South Wales
 
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