The Darwin Show

Steven Shapin in the London Review of Books:

397px-Charles_Darwin_by_G__Richmond Even conceding the more expansive claims for Darwin’s genius and influence, we’re still some way from understanding what the festivities have been about. There are other claimants for the prize of towering scientific genius, and for ‘making the modern world’, but none of them has been the occasion for global festivities on anything like this scale. The 400th anniversary of Galileo’s birth was 1964, and Descartes’s 1996; Newton’s Principia turned 300 in 1987; Einstein’s Wunderjahr papers in Annalen der Physik, changing the way physicists think about space, time and matter, had their centenary in 2005. All were duly marked, mainly by historians, philosophers and physicists, but there was nothing remotely approaching Darwin 200. Even if we had an unambiguous metric for ranking scientific genius and modernity-making – one by which Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Einstein were chopped liver compared to Darwin – neither genius nor influence would be a sufficient explanation for the events of 2009.

The very idea of paying homage to the great scientists of the past is problematic. Scientists are not widely supposed either to be heroes or to have heroes. Modern sensibilities insist on scientists’ moral equivalence to anyone else, and notions of an impersonal Scientific Method, which have gained official dominance over older ideas of scientific genius, make the personalities of scientists irrelevant in principle. Honouring past scientists is therefore a different sort of thing from, say, paying homage to history’s generals, politicians or, indeed, imaginative artists.

More here.