Almost anyone that you talk to will have some idea of Darwin. That theory of evolution cartoon will probably also come to mind. The common knowledge of Darwin, and the household use of his name is the result of a revolution over a much longer period than we might normally consider. Janet Browne’s lecture on Darwin was very insightful and here I rely on her wealth information and insights. The evolution cartoon and the idea of “progress” was added not by Darwin, but by others in the mid-1900s. Romanization of Darwin was initiated by family member and other Darwin proponents. So how much of the real Darwin does the average person know? Not much. But does that matter in terms of a revolution?
Darwin could have been a name heard much less often. Darwin became an icon for others to use no matter their agenda. Even immediately following his death, friends of Darwin asked that he be buried in Westminster Abbey (against his wishes), turning him into a “secular saint.” Darwin was the centerpiece of the Natural History Museum. His legacy hit a road block when the Darwin statue was removed in the 1920’s when he started to seem a little too old fashioned. After all, genetics was the new science of the early 1900’s, and important connections were not initially drawn to Darwin’s work. But then Darwin came roaring back into the spotlight. It’s fascinating how a scientist who many deem as incredibly important can go in and out of fashion like anything else. It makes me wonder if Darwin will ever leave the mainstream in the future again.
It is hard to understand Darwin as part of the pop culture context. From a t-shirt to a town named after him, the story of a revolution including many other individuals cannot be mentioned. Alfred Russel Wallace came to similar conclusions as Darwin independently, but only scholars know of Wallace’s incredible generosity in supporting Darwin rather than be bitter about him. Wallace got much less glory and many fewer t-shirts.
I can draw a somewhat vague connection to a Janplan class that I took here at Colby. It was called “Strongmen and Populism in Modern Spain and Latin America,” and one of the people we came across was Zapata. Zapata started out totally unknown, then became the leader of a movement in Mexico and an idea that became more important than he did—especially after his death. I’m sure we could name numerous other examples where a person or an icon is adopted for a wider movement or revolution. Maybe this is what Darwin has become? Though he certainly has the resume to back his fame.