Figure of Charles Darwin

Darwin 1

Materials:  Moulded polyresin, painted
Dimensions:  5 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Darwin memorabilia website, USA
Place of manufacture:  unknown

Charles Darwin published his most famous work The Origin of Species in 1859. It proposed the theory that life on Earth has developed over a very long time scale through a slow process of natural selection – the theory of evolution.

This little model of Darwin, designed and made sometime in the first decade of the 21st century, depicts him with an outsize head and a dumpy little body, clutching his famous book in his left hand. It seems at first sight to be an affectionate caricature – a tribute to the great man of biological science. And perhaps it is. But it conceals a surprise that raises at least the possibility that the figure has a less than friendly purpose. The head of the figure can be removed like a loose-fitting stopper to reveal, down inside the hollowed out body, the head of a monkey peering out at us.

Today the idea that human beings and other primate species – apes and monkeys – share a common ancestor in the deep past is not widely questioned or seen as shocking in any way. But at the time that Darwin’s book was published it seemed like an attack on the Christian orthodoxy of divine creation. The slur that Darwin and his supporters believed us to be ‘descended from monkeys’ became an established feature of the religious backlash to evolutionary theory and there are several hostile cartoon images of the time that depict Darwin with the hairy body of an ape. In a debate on evolution in 1860 the Bishop of Oxford, in an attempt at ridicule, famously asked Darwin’s advocate Thomas Huxley if it ‘was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?’ The very fact that Darwin’s sweeping theory of life on Earth in all its complexity could be reduced to an emotive spat about humans being equated with monkeys is a measure of the controversy and strength of feeling that Darwin’s theory generated at the time.

It’s fair to say that Darwin’s view of the world very quickly established itself as the founding orthodoxy of modern biological science. Its time had well and truly come. But the controversy between ‘evolutionism’ and ‘creationism’ has never completely disappeared within certain Christian communities. Part of a current resurgence of fundamentalist ideas, particularly in parts of America, advocates the teaching of creationism rather than evolution in schools.

I bought this little figure of Darwin from a website in America and it uses the same visual pun ‘Darwin as monkey’ as those Victorian cartoons of 150 years ago. It didn’t really strike me at the time I bought it, but maybe it has a similar intention. It is, perhaps a piece of modern creationist propaganda.