Charles Darwin’s discovery was surely great. But let’s not dismiss all other thinkers – Aristotle or Socrates, say – who came before him

A sculpture of Darwin outside Bradford Town Hall made out of sand (Photo: PA)

This is the opening paragraph of Professor Richard Dawkins’s famous book The Selfish Gene, quoted in its entirety.


Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilisation, is: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist. Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G G Simpson put it thus: “The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”

I said the other day that there was something about it that made me sit up and take notice.

Working out the reason for your own existence is certainly the mark of an advanced society or an advanced individual. This is what Socrates did – he reflected on his own existence, and he came to a remarkable degree of self-understanding. He was the one who remarked that the unexamined life was not worth living. Aristotle, too, believed that self-reflection, what he called phronesis, was the highest possible human activity. Aristotle was of course a biologist, and much of his life was spent in observing not just himself, but nature too.

But neither of these men knew of evolution, though they may have had inklings of the truth. In fact the Greeks, though very advanced in mathematics and philosophy, were at a practical level poor scientists. They did not even invent the arch, even though they could predict eclipses and study the planets (quite an achievement, considering they had no telescopes).

My point is that the Greeks, though ignorant of many scientific achievements of later generations, were not the sort of people that one should dismiss; yet that is exactly what the quotation from G G Simpson, within the quotation above, seems to do.

The year 1859 – the year of Darwin’s great scientific discovery – surely is an important year, even a watershed. But to dismiss all the centuries that come before seems mistaken. But it has to be said that this is a common mistake. Human beings love to see certain events as key, and somehow changing all that went before. Perhaps one can see the Darwinian moment as marking a paradigm shift (I have no problem with that), but should one see it as the greatest paradigm shift ever, which is clearly what Professor Dawkins believes?

All this reminds me of the way that his contemporaries reacted to Isaac Newton. Alexander Pope wrote:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

This implies that Newton’s discoveries were more or less the most important thing since the creation of the world – though it is worth remembering that Pope was famous for his irony.

The problem I have with seeing Darwin as the inaugurator of a new age (though he undoubtedly was that in a sense) is the implication that everything that went before was gravely lacking. Not only are Aristotle and Socrates worth treasuring – they represent human achievements never bettered in certain important respects – but it is also true to say, surely, that Darwin did not come from nowhere, and that he, too, like all of us, was a product of his time. In other words, without the pre-history, without those who went before him, Darwin himself would not have been the man he was.

So, in reply to G G Simpson, one would have to say that what preceded the year 1859 simply cannot be ignored. Not even Darwin started from scratch. No one does.