Darwin myths exposed

Jim Endersby presents a review of two recent books on Darwin -- a Variorum edition of the Origin, and a new edition of Darwin's correspondence -- in the Times Literary Supplement.

Take, for example, the mythical clash between science and religion. The Victorian crisis of faith predated the Origin by many years; Tennyson found himself stretching lame hands of faith when confronted by nature red in tooth and claw in 1850, almost a decade before Darwin went public. When Nature gave voice in Tennysons In Memoriam, instead of demonstrating the existence and beneficence of the creator, she expressed complete indifference for species, the types of living things: So careful of the type? but no. / From scarped cliff and quarried stone / She cries, A thousand types are gone: / I care for nothing, all shall go'.
It was the fossilized evidence of extinct species, entombed in the cliffs (until the quarrying, mining, railway building and canal cutting of the Industrial Revolution revealed them) that led men like Tennyson to doubt that God was love indeed. These were doubts that he, and many of his contemporaries, had harboured at least since the 1830s, when Charles Lyells geological theories gave them a glimpse of the terrifying vastness of time. An ancient Earth was not inherently disturbing, but the fossil record made it clear that for most of its long history, the Earth had been uninhabited by people. If, as the Bible claimed, this planet had been made as a habitation for humanity, why had its creator taken so long to get the tenants in? And if God was such a great designer, why was almost everything hed designed now extinct?

Any review that can quote Tennyson in service of Darwin is bound to be a gem; this one surpasses by including many of the telling reactions to Darwin's work, including Dennert's famous line:

Despite the enormous historical importance of Mendels work, it was nineteenth-century plant-breeding, not twentieth-century genetics; a lot of hard work (and a great many fruit flies) would be needed to transform Mendels insights into modern genetics. As a result, the rediscovery of Mendels work, far from cementing Darwins triumph, initially led to his downfall, since many perceived the fledgling science of Mendelism to be a satisfactory alternative to the seemingly outdated Darwinian natural selection; in 1903, a German botanist wrote: We are now standing at the death bed of Darwinism, and making ready to send the friends of the patient a little money to ensure a decent burial of the remains.

It sums up to a good list of various "myths" about Darwin and his work, and is a good read even if you've heard most of it before

(via henry)