29 May 2008

Thomas Henry Huxley weighs in on the location of Darwin statue at the Natural History Museum

Hat-tip to David Williams for pointing me to this quote from an address by Thomas Henry Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog", yes, but much more) on the gifting, in 1885, of a statue of Darwin to the Natural History Museum in London (then the British Museum, Natural History) ...yes, the same statue of Darwin that has just been restored to its original position atop the grand staircase.

Pay special attention to the middle paragraph:
"We do not make this request for the mere sake of perpetuating a memory; for so long as men occupy themselves with the pursuit of truth, the name of Darwin runs no more risk of oblivion than does that of Copernicus, or that of Harvey.

Nor, most assuredly, do we ask you to preserve the statue in its cynosural position in this entrance-hall of our National Museum of Natural History as evidence that Mr. Darwin's views have received your official sanction; for science does not recognise such sanctions, and commits suicide when it adopts a creed.

No; we beg you to cherish this Memorial as a symbol by which, as generation after generation of students of Nature enter yonder door, they shall be reminded of the ideal according to which they must shape their lives, if they would turn to the best account the opportunities offered by the great institution under your charge."

...read Huxley's address in its entirety here.
And so it may be that one day the Natural History Museum will swap out Darwin's memorial for another statue, perhaps to celebrate another occasion, or even re-replace it with Owen's statue (as I said before, Owen was a splendid scientist and champion of science-for-the-masses, if a bit of a curmudgeon, and he did found the Natural History Museum).

For now, though, I think it entirely appropriate that, to celebrate this period encompassing not only Darwin's bicentenary but also Wallace and Darwin's joint discovery of natural selection and the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, we have put Darwin's memorial back in the place where it was first unveiled. It is wholly in keeping with Huxley's plea in the last sentence quoted above, so long as we also bear in mind his warning* in the preceding sentence.

One of the best ways to heed it, as incited here on other occasions, is to welcome, perhaps even commission, honest appraisals of Darwin the man, warts and all, and for goodness sake, can we also please occasionally remember him without That Beard?

*Interestingly, Huxley's warning here would seem to anticipate later creationist claims that Darwinism is a religion ... or perhaps the creationists were, even then, using this as one of their talking points?


Richard Carter, FCD said...

Hey, less of the pogonophobia: beards are dead sexy.

Karen James said...

Apologies, Richard; actually I rather fancy a man in a beard, but in Darwin's case, beard=old and old=uninteresting to young people. Though Humble Woodcutter assures me otherwise, I have the testimony of several north London teenagers to the contrary.

gruts said...

I'm a big fan of the Huxley File linked to in your post. They were well ahead of the game in terms of putting this sort of thing online... A forerunner of Darwin Online.