Thursday February 12, 2009
Today is Darwin Day, marking two hundred years since the birth of Shropshire’s finest – or one hundred and fifty years since the publication of the Origin of Species; and there are celebrations to mark the event taking place across the world.
Two years ago, whilst travelling in Bulgaria, I read the Origin of Species from cover to cover for the first time. It is one of those books that is so talked about that you assume that you know what is in it, without having read it. As a result, I put off reading it for far too long. When I at last got round to reading it, I found myself overwhelmed by the patience and the care with which Darwin constructed his arguments, by the way that the book testifies to long hours of observation, by its patient accumulation of endless amounts of data, by its careful sifting of facts, by its the mixture of hesitancy when hesitancy is due and qualified certitude when the data seem to require it. The story goes that Alfred Russel Wallace, when he read the book, claimed to be relieved that Darwin published first, because he knew that he himself would have been incapable of producing a work of such singular care.
Why celebrate? Because Darwin’s book, as I read it, offers us the possibility of a return to a sense of at-homeness in the world, a sense that we are a part of things, no longer separated off. It presents a view of life that has to it, as Darwin wrote in the end of his book, an astonishing grandeur. It is a testament to the value of careful attention as a way of releasing us from the blindness of dogma. That is to say, I read the Origin of Species as a kind of quiet science, almost Lucretian in spirit, a science that – beyond triumphalism and clamour, and beyond the shrill assertions of the creationist rabble – offers the possibility of a new kind of poetics, a new sense of our place in the world.
How will I be celebrating Darwin Day? Not with diatribes against the wilful and darkly strange obsessions of the Biblical literalists, nor with polemics or arguments. But by leaving my desk, and going outside where I can (now that I turn my mind to it) hear the wood-pigeon calling on the roof of the house opposite, and a dog barking some way off, so that I may experience that wonder of being here at all, amongst so many of my kin.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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