The wife of the bishop of Worcester spoke for many, then and now, when she said of Darwinism: "Descended from the apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."
A century after his death, and in the anniversary week of "Origin of Species," Charles Darwin, the man, still needs rescuing from the terrors of his "ism." Every year, this week should be designated Darwin Week -- a time for appreciating one who would rank among the greatest naturalists even if he had never thought of evolution by "natural selection."
To be sure, imagining Darwin without Darwinism is as hard as imagining Newton without gravitation or Einstein without relativity. But let us try.
How would Darwin be remembered today if his theory of natural selection had merely fallen through the cracks, as did Mendel's exactly contemporaneous work on genetics? That could have happened. The president of the Linnean Society, after hearing Darwin's preliminary explanation, remarked that the year "has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which . . . revolutionize . . . the department of science on which they bear."
Darwin would, for one thing, be remembered -- charmingly -- as an assiduous patron of pigeon fanciers and dog-breeding clubs. Breeders of domestic livestock had been shaping animals selectively for centuries if not millennia, though without seeing momentous implications in their breeding techniques. One preliminary reader of "Origin of Species" wished Darwin had stuck to pigeons. "Everyone," he commented to Darwin's publisher, "is interested in pigeons."
But Darwin suffered from scientific genius -- the ordinary power of observation vastly magnified and disciplined by powerful theory. All pigeon breeders knew that hybrids often looked like rock pigeons, the ancestral breed. Darwin would not let that curiosity pass without speculating on its meaning for all life forms.
Darwin, ingenious observer, was also our first ecological storyteller, the great-grandfather of our still imperfect grasp of the economy of nature.
Thus he noted the curiosity that bumblebees ("humble-bees," as he called them) alone visited certain wild pansies and red clover. Other bees could not reach their nectar.
"The number of humble-bees," he writes, "depends in a great measure on the number of field mice, which destroy their combs and nests. Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as everyone knows, on the number of cats. . . . Hence it is quite credible that the presence of feline animals in large numbers might determine . . . the frequency of certain flowers."
The interdependence of cats and certain flowers is far from obvious, but this is the prototype of the ecological stories we hear now -- for instance, about the link between the impact of man-made dams on the breeding habits of West Coast salmon and the girth of redwood trees.
Other naturalists had observed the complexity of the "web" of life. For Darwin it was a principle of understanding. A year before he died he was still applying it, in a treatise on the services of the lowly earthworm.
Scientifically, it is a short step from homely and charming ecological tales to the universal "struggle for existence." Psychologically, that short step is hard to take because it seems superficially to have bone-chilling ethical implications.
But "nature," however it works, is not more competent to tell human beings how to behave than the Ten Commandments are to decipher the links between cats and flowers, or salmon and redwood trees.
The ethical and social "implications" often glibly drawn from Darwin's work are, for the most part, mutually contradictory nonsense. As Jonathan Howard says, "If socialism, laissez-faire capitalism, wishy-washy humanism and sociobiological fundamentalism can all find support in Darwin's work, then we must believe either that Darwin was absurdly unclear and inconsistent in his arguments, which he certainly was not, or that the theory of evolution has little if anything to do with ethical prescriptions."
If there was ethical challenge to mankind in Darwin's genius, it was a challenge on the grand scale: the deep conviction that what seems mysterious in the working of nature can be explained if the unifying mechanism can be grasped.
Even if, like the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, you are disconcerted by that possibility and wish it could be hushed up, there is much in Darwin's life and work to be simply enjoyed. Everyone presumably approves of clover, cats and bumblebees, if not pigeons.