Of Evolution and Revolution

“An elderly lady attended a public lecture given by an astrophysicist on how the Earth goes around the Sun and how the Sun circles about with countless other stars in the Milky Way. During the question and answer session, the woman stood up and told the distinguished scientist that his lecture was nonsense, that the Earth is a flat disk supported on the back of an enormous tortoise. The scientist tried to outwit the lady by asking, ‘Well, my dear, what supports the tortoise? To which she replied, ‘You’re a very clever young man, but not clever enough. It’s turtles all the way down!

“A Brief History of Time”, Stephen W. Hawking

As far as Darwin was concerned The Origin of Species was never meant to be the end of the story. In the introduction Darwin describes how he had been urged by his publishers to produce an Abstract, “as my health is far from strong.” Darwin needn’t have worried about his health, as he lived for a good twenty years after the publication date. However the completed sketch, in which Darwin planned to demonstrate fully how he arrived at his conclusions, was never to materialise. The reader is assured, however, that the Origin was based on at least twenty years’ scholarship and field work.

Another publication of the same period was also driven by the desires of its publishers. This time, the author was a thirty-year-old political journalist and social philosopher, required to produce a document in time to coincide with one of the many uprisings of the period. The publication, a pamphlet whose first edition numbered only 23 pages, was rushed out in less than six weeks with little time for reflection or review. The year was 1848, the pamphlet was entitled The Communist Manifesto and the author was Karl Marx.

Although the initial print run of the Manifesto went largely unnoticed by those involved in the revolution in Germany in 1848, it has gone on to become one of the most widely read texts ever published. As Darwinism challenged religious beliefs in its day, so Marxism has gone on to become to all intents and purposes a religion with the Manifesto as its holy book. According to historian AJP Taylor, Karl Marx himself claimed that Darwin had done for biology what he had done for social sciences.

Despite the certainty with which both Darwin and Marx held their beliefs, neither ever claimed to have invented something entirely new. The main achievement of both can be explained in the timelessness of each of the texts. Each remains as accessible today as it was on the day of publication.

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