The Darwin Show

Stephen Shapin in the LRB:

Artists create; scientists discover. That’s our usual understanding of the thing, and scientists – together with some of their philosophical allies – have been in the van of insisting so. (That’s one way in which ‘relativism’ and ‘social constructivism’ are commonly opposed.) If science is discovery and not invention, then it follows that discoverers’ relation to what they reveal is different in both intellectual texture and moral resonance from Mozart’s relation to his operas, Shakespeare’s to his plays, and even Bush’s to his wars. You couldn’t say of Figaro or Lear or the Iraq war that they were waiting there to be ‘discovered’. ‘Something of that sort’ may well have come into being, but an example of ‘something like’ Figaro is Salieri’s Axur, Re d’Ormus or even Abba’s ‘Waterloo’. You don’t necessarily have to construct counter-factual histories to support this sort of sensibility. Scientists are often said to hit on ‘the same’ (or ‘nearly the same’) idea at about ‘the same’ time: Galileo, Scheiner and several others on sunspots; Leibniz and Newton on the calculus; Priestley and Scheele on oxygen; Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam on electroweak gauge theory; and, of course, Darwin and the undercelebrated Alfred Russel Wallace on evolution by natural selection. Every instance of what has been called ‘simultaneous discovery’ lends credence to the notion that the individual does not matter in the course of science, or matters in a very different sort of way from authorial mattering in the creative arts. Homage to the scientist and to the artist sits astride one of our great cultural faultlines. What is owed to reality, and what to the creative work – even the imaginative, literary and political work – of those who are said to lift the veil of reality’s structural and dynamic secrets?

You can still say, with perfect accuracy, that the Origin is much more than its ‘essential’ theory of natural selection: it is a book, a magnificent theatre of persuasion, ‘one long argument’ (as Darwin called it), supported by masses of arduously compiled evidence, ingeniously organised and vouched for by a special individual, with known special virtues and capacities. (Historical reactions differed even on the recognition of the Origin’s literary qualities: George Eliot sourly considered the book ‘ill-written and sadly wanting in illustrative facts’, lacking ‘luminous and orderly presentation’, and Karl Marx complained about ‘the clumsy English style’.) s Richard Horton observed in a special issue of the Lancet, Darwin’s fame, unlike that of today’s scientists, was ‘based on books … His books were neither summaries nor simplifications: they were the core of his originality.’ Writing books was not, for Darwin, an irritating obligation to report on discoveries: reporting and persuading were, for him, seamlessly joined creative acts. He liked writing and took enormous pains in composition; he cared deeply about its power and effects on readers. Whatever might be meant by the ‘essence’ of evolution by natural selection is something you could say was discovered: the text called the Origin was composed, in exactly the same sense that Figaro was composed, artfully put together, invented.