One scientist came up with a new way of explaining how biology works. A generation later, the other one came up with a new way of explaining how physics works. Today, after a century of scrutiny, both explanations still pretty much hold up. But in popular culture, physicist Albert Einstein is idolized, while biologist Charles Darwin's legacy is clouded with controversy. Why do Darwin's theories on the origin of species, put forth in 1859, hold a status so different from that of Einstein's theories on relativity, published between 1905 and 1916? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and co-author of the book “Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution,” reflected on that question during a recent interview at the University of Washington.
Here's an edited question-and-answer transcript of the interview:
MSNBC: Einstein and Darwin seem to hold two different places in our society. One is virtually a pop culture icon, while some people almost want to take down the other guy's statues. Why is that we have two different approaches to these people, even though they developed theories that are in very similar states of evidence?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: While they were both scientists, Einstein was the first very public scientist who was visibly active in social causes as well as political causes. I don’t know that the same was true with Darwin. I know he was well known in his day. I know his book, “On the Origin of Species,” was a best seller. But I don’t know that he was active in politics, influencing governments. I don’t know that he was approached by a sovereign nation and was asked to be its president, as Einstein was with the new state of Israel, for example.