Darwin still lives

Q and A

Why a UMBC teacher is fascinated by the father of evolutionary theory

Q&A -- Sandra Herbert


"He was born on Feb. 12, 1809," Sandra Herbert says of Charles Darwin, the person who has dominated her intellectual life since she was an undergraduate at Wittenberg University in Ohio over 40 years ago.

"That's the same day in the same year as Abraham Lincoln," Herbert points out. "I don't know if Lincoln ever heard of Darwin - he probably did - but Darwin certainly heard of Lincoln. He was a big supporter of the North in the Civil War and Darwin's family was all very much anti-slavery."

Herbert went on to get a doctorate at Brandeis University and has been in the history department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for three decades. She has edited volumes of Darwin's papers and published the book Charles Darwin: Geologist last year.

Darwin's birth date means that 2009 will be the bicentennial of the birth of this man who would go on to help revolutionize biology and, in the United States at least, live on as a political and cultural touchstone.

There is a major conference planned at England's Cambridge University, Darwin's alma mater, which houses his papers, to mark the bicentennial in the year that is also the 800th anniversary of the founding of Cambridge.

That's where Herbert will head in a few weeks, to spend the academic year amid Darwin's papers and the many artifacts he brought back from his five-year journey on the Beagle.

"It is wonderful to see them together," she says, speaking of those moments when you can read Darwin's words and look at the objects and realize that "you are right there in the groove with him."

Why did you first get interested in Darwin?

I think it was partly the difference between what you learned in high school and college at that time. In high school, evolution was presented in the back of the book. It wasn't that anyone was saying it wasn't true, just that it was not a very interesting subject.

Then when I got to college, well, I found that the biologists thought evolution was very, very exciting. That difference, that little bit of controversy, made it intriguing.

That's why I think, at least up until the last 10 or 15 years, the Darwin scholarly business has been dominated by Americans. I think it was the controversy that made him seem interesting. He was too much a part of the carpet in England.

Why is Darwin seen as such a controversial figure in America and not in England?

A lot has to do with the history of religion. The English have an established church and we don't. We are very proud of not having an established church, of having absolute freedom of religion. But that also means you can think whatever you want about something like evolution.

My English friends, seeing all the controversy over Darwin in America, ask, "How does this happen?" And I explain that we don't have anyone telling us what to think in religion so people can think what they choose to. They say that they supposed freedom of opinion is a good thing, but you really should come down on a certain side of some issues. But, freedom is freedom.

The British clerical establishment wrestled with this in the 1860s and decided how they were going to come down. It helped that Darwin's greatest defender, John Stevens Henslow, who was at Cambridge, was a clergyman. He was not all that crazy about evolution, but he defended Darwin's right to speak about it.

Among people loyal to the Church of England, a middle way very quickly developed within 10 years or so of the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. The church never really let it erupt as a controversy. And, of course, Darwin was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey, so they reconciled.

In plenty of countries it is not even raised as an issue. Then in France, Darwin is not that well known because they give credit to their own guy, [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck. He had most of it so that's fair enough.

You have, in a way, spent a lot of time with this man. Do you like the Darwin you have come to know?

Oh, yes. He was a tremendously hard worker and very devoted to his family and friends. He pretty much answered every letter that arrived, and I can't think of any public person of that prominence who does that any more. He was very well-regarded for how he fit into his local village life. His servants were very fond of him as well. He treated people with respect.

So what do you think of his emergence as a divisive cultural symbol?

It is unfortunate. I don't think he deserves it. He was a decent person who went out of his way to avoid controversy. He was very deferential to his audience, saying things to the effect, "I know you might not be able to go very far with me on this," or, "You might have a different point of view on this." He always deferred to other people's opinions.

That said, he did have a certain confidence in his positions. He was like someone like Lance Armstrong - he had a confidence that he could back up.

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