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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

[Reposted from 2008.]

Charles Robert Darwin was born on this day in 1809. Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived.

In honor of his birthday, and given that this is a year of politics in America, I thought it would be fun to post something about Darwin's interactions with politicians. The historical account is from Janet Browne's excellent biography (Brown 2002).

William Gladstone (photo below) was an orthodox Christian. He was not a fan of evolution. In March 1877 Gladstone was leader of the Liberal party and a former Prime Minister of the most powerful country in the world. He was spending the weekend with John Lunnock—a well-known liberal—and a few other friends, including Thomas Huxley.

They decided to walk over to Darwin's House in Downe. This was 18 years after the publication of Origins and Darwin was a famous guy. The guests were cordially received by Darwin and his wife Emma. Darwin and Emma were life-long liberals and they were honored by Gladstone's visit. A few days later, Darwin wrote a note to his friend saying,

Our quiet, however, was broken a couple of days ago by Gladstone calling here.—I never saw him before & was much pleased with him: I expected a stern, overwhelming sort of man, but found him as soft & smooth as butter, & very pleasant. He asked me whether I thought that the United States would hereafter play a much greater part in the history of the world than Europe. I said that I thought it would, but why he asked me, I cannot conceive & I said that he ought to be able to form a far better opinion,—but what that was he did not at all let out.
A few years later Gladstone sent Darwin one of his essays on Homer. Darwin gratefully acknowledged the gesture.

In 1881, when Gladstone was Prime Minister again, Darwin and some of his friends petitioned Gladstone to award a pension to Alfred Russel Wallace, who was in dire financial straits at the time. Gladstone granted the request. Two months later Gladstone offered Darwin a position as trustee of the British Museum but Darwin declined. (Remember, Gladstone did not agree with Darwin about evolution, or religion.)

When Darwin died, Gladstone was instrumental in arranging for him to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The funeral was held on April 26, 1882. William Gladstone was too busy to attend. He went to a dinner at Windsor.

Brown, J. (2002) Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Vol. II). Alfred A. Knopf, New York (USA)


  1. Just for the edification of Prof. Moran, I will point out that Great Britain's most prominent physicist at the time, James Clerk Maxwell, was also a disbeliever in Darwin's Theory of Evolution, based on his devout Christian beliefs. As the late Christopher Hitchens famously remarked, religion poisons everything.

    1. Thanks for the edification but I already knew that James Clerk Maxwell wasn't in the running for the greatest scientist who ever lived.

      I didn't realize that Maxwell (1831-1879) was more prominent than Kelvin (1824-1907) in the last part of the nineteenth century.

  2. No Google Doodle for Darwin today. I was looking forward to Google commemorating this important day especially because Dicken's 200th birthday merited a Google Doodle on February 7.

  3. "Darwin was the greatest scientist who ever lived."

    I am submitting this comment from Why Evolution Is True to add to the controversy:

  4. Just because William Thompson was given a life peerage and took the name Lord Kelvin doesn't make him more prominent then Maxwell. Generally, Maxwell is considered by historians of science to be the most prominent physicist of the 19th century, ahead of Lord Kelvin and Michael Faraday. Pierre Simon de LaPlace, the man who had no need of the god hypothesis to prove the stability of the Solar System, is considered the most prominent scientist of the 18 century.

  5. Veronica, thanks for referring to my comment in Why Evolution is True. I was thinking more about this last night. Imagine, Einstein sitting in his office in Bern figured out that matter equals energy by pure thought, without doing a single experiment! And the formula he deduced (again, by pure thought, no experiments) is accurate to as many decimal places as we can measure today. And this thing he figured out in his office is true (EXACTLY true!!!) all over the universe. This explains how the sun and the stars work, and lots of other things, and Einstein got there just by very abstract, mind-bogglingly counter-intuitive thought!
    I also agree with SLC that Maxwell deserves a very high place in any scientific pantheon.

  6. Suspect it was John Lubbock, not "John Lunnock". Please see:,_1st_Baron_Avebury