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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Darwin Day!

[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)


colnago80 said...

Sorry professor, Isaac Newton was the most important scientist who ever live.

Veronica Abbass said...

Thank you for this post. It combines an appreciation for science, history and literature.

Anyone who reads and appreciates English literature can learn so much from Janet Brown's two volume biography of Darwin; it is English literature (non-fiction) at its best: a combination of history and science.

Re: politics in America

See a 1998 comparison of Gladstone and Bill Clinton at

Piotr Gąsiorowski said...

That's why we have a very special celebration of his birthday on the 25th of December ;)

Unknown said...

As a young man, Gladstone wrote a very complex (not to say unreadable) book entitled "The Church in its relation to the State" which, as far as anyone other than Gladstone has ever understood it, seems to call for an Anglican theocracy in the UK. One of his first speeches in Parliament, perhaps his very first, was in defense of slavery.

I like to use Gladstone as an example of how people can change for the better, as he got steadily more liberal as he aged. From very conservative, he became merely conservative, then centrist (he was a Peelite), and when the Peelite coalition broke down, he joined the Liberals, not the Conservatives. He never got to the point of favouring pensions, unemployment insurance and the like, but if he'd lived 20 years longer he might have.

He remained a very devout (high Anglican) Christian, and was convinced that much of the bible was foreshadowed in Homer, but no longer believed that his church could or should be imposed on others.

For those interested in Victorian politics I recommend Roy Jenkins' biography of Gladstone - and for that matter his biography of Asquith, and his biography of a man who mysteriously didn't make it to number 11, Sir Charles Dilke.

William Hyde

Unknown said...

If you by great mean having had a great impact, then I think Louis Pasteur is a better candidate for his advancement of medical science.

If you by great mean brilliant, then how about Albert Einstein who developed the ground breaking Theory of General Relativity and lay the foundation for the Quantum Theory?

Or if you by great mean having won great acclaim, then how about Marie Curie who won the Nobel prize twice?

Or maybe you should take great to mean a researcher who's discoveries have lead to many ground breaking patents, then how about Nikola Tesla?

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

I think by greatest he's one of very few people to have actually solved one of the oldest questions: How did humans (and all other species) come to be?

Joe Felsenstein said...

It might be better to say that "Darwin and Emma were life-long Liberals" as Liberal here is a party name. We know people who are "life-long republicans" who are definitely not "life-long Republicans".

It is interesting to note that Gladstone's willingness to greet Darwin, and to agree to his request for a pension for Wallace had its limits -- Darwin was never knighted.

Anyway, thanks, Larry, for this post.

Unknown said...

The Liberal party had only existed since the mid 1850s, prior to that the Darwins would have had to be life-long Whigs or Radicals. I'm guessing Radical.

And while it is true that Dilke never made it to number 11, of course I meant to say he never made it to number 10.

William Hyde