Friday, 30 January 2009

Charles Darwin's Anniversary & Our Current Issue

Born 200 years ago, the great work On the Origin of Species – one of the few books that really did change the world – was first published in 1859. Just over two decades later, Darwin was laid to rest beside Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. Though some doubts were raised about his religious beliefs – he died an ‘agnostic’ – the Church of England had few qualms about placing Darwin on the highest pedestal of scientific genius, until then occupied by Newton alone. The Reverend Frederick Farrar, in his sermon at Darwin’s funeral, sought to explain that the theory of evolution was entirely consistent with the idea of a Creator. Only fundamentalists – religious or atheist – seem to be agitated by that rather banal observation which has been repeated with regularity ever since. For most people, regardless of their beliefs, Darwin is simply not a controversial character.

The real question to ask – as History Today does – is why the most vociferous and sustained opposition to Darwin’s ideas is to be found in what is arguably the world’s most scientifically advanced nation, the United States. Thomas Dixon, in a groundbreaking study, suggests it is a matter of unintended consequences, that in keeping religion out of the classroom through its policy of separation of church and state, the US federal government inspired ingenious Christian fundamentalists to smuggle religion into the school laboratory in the guise of Intelligent Design.
History, it seems, is full of unintended consequences, the distortion of ideals. Blair Worden, one of our most distinguished historians of the Civil Wars, considers the execution of Charles I in 1649 and, among other questions, asks whether the regicide ensured the long-term survival of the monarchy.

The consequences of the current economic downturn have yet to become apparent. The credit crunch which affected the France of Louis XIV – caused by ever more elaborate, indeed Baroque methods of finance and debt – led ultimately to revolution and the death of the French monarchy. Guy Rowlands recounts a cautionary tale of excess and folly with verve and wit.

Material excess has been a defining characteristic of recent decades, in the West at least. We may now be entering a period when our ability to differentiate ourselves from one another depends a little less on vulgar display and a little more on good taste. The origins of this subtle and elusive concept are the subject of our cover story, a typically rich and wide-ranging study by the esteemed historian of early modern culture and society, Keith Thomas.

I hope you enjoy this month's offering...

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