The deeper current of Darwin’s thought

When people think of Charles Darwin, they first think of evolution.  But as Matt Ridley notes in this excellent The Spectator piece (here), there are currents of Darwin’s thought that flow on almost unrecognized:

Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago next month, has spent the 150 years since he published The Origin of Species fighting for the idea of common descent…  But in some ways it is less radical and topical than his other, more philosophical legacy: that order can generate itself, that the living world is a ‘bottom-up’ place.

As regular readers know, I’m skeptical of the way many technologists don the cloak of “innovator”, or “revolutionary”, or “pathfinder” (here and here).   The role of innovators is humbler in Darwin’s world:

Every technology has traceable ancestry; ‘to create is to recombine’ said the geneticist François Jacob. The first motor car was once described by the historian L.T.C. Rolt as ‘sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage’. Just like living systems, technologies experience mutation (such as the invention of the spinning jenny), reproduction (the rapid mechanisation of the cotton industry as manufacturers copied each others’ machines), sex (Samuel Crompton’s combination of water frame and jenny to make a ‘mule’), competition (different designs competing in the early cotton mills), extinction (the spinning jenny was obsolete by 1800), and increasing complexity (modern cotton mills are electrified and computerised).

It’s a nice bit of irony that so many of these self-styled technology revolutionaries — who often believe their innovations had no precedents — are at heart believers in theories like spontaneous generation or intelligent design.  Not the company they would imagine themselves keeping, eh?

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One Response

  1. The current issue of American Scientist has several papers on Darwin and his impact on other domains.
    Much misunderstanding about the orginal theory and its application.
    Our son is a Bio Major and keeps us on our toes regarding the mis-information about this crtiically important topic. I attribute most of the misinformation to the failure of the US science education.
    I was a physics guy in my former life (realtime control of the detector array, not smart enough to do theory).

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