Since Darwin's Era, Following Science Got Complex

When Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the people who could afford to purchase a copy were fairly educated. It was before science was so specialized, and readers were able to keep up with science enough to realize how remarkable his theory was.

The digital revolution has given billions of people around the globe nearly instantaneous access to anything even close to a scientific breakthrough. But that doesn't mean people would recognize a scientific breakthrough if one occurred.

Yet consider the reception for On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin's first attempt to articulate his theory of evolution by natural selection. It outraged some people in the church and in the scientific community, as well. Anything that challenges accepted dogma will have that effect.

But unlike today, the discussion of Darwin's theories was primarily conducted among the intelligentsia of the day, for a very simple reason: "Books were pretty expensive," says Jim Secord, director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University. "They were something that a gentleman could afford, but they certainly couldn't buy dozens of books a year or anything like that. A book like The Origin of Species cost the equivalent of a working man's weekly wage."

And the people who could afford to buy the book were people who were, by and large, very well-educated.

"That fraction of people who figured that they could and should keep more or less up to date with what was happening in geology, in botany, in zoology, even in physics and mathematics is a much bigger fraction than it is today," says Steven Shapin, a Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

And it didn't take most educated people very long to realize that Darwin had produced a theory that was remarkably important.

But Shapin argues that science has gotten a lot more technical and specialized in the past century and a half, and no one can really stay up with every field of research.

"So we hear about scientific claims," says Shapin. "A very large fraction of the population now knows, through electronic media, about Dolly the [cloned] sheep, about the human genome, about what's going on in the latest finding with climate change," he says.

But that's not the same as understanding the implications of this information.

"We hear about scientific findings," says Shapin. "But the proportion that can evaluate them and follow along with them, as opposed to hearing about them, is very, very small."

Shapin says that since people can't be completely conversant with the relevant science, "They're looking for an answer to the question, 'Who can we rely on? Who's speaking the truth? Who can we trust?' "

And that's not an easy question to answer, either.

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On this date, 150 years ago, the first edition of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" appeared in print. That was 1859, and back then, news of Darwin's revolutionary ideas spread slowly. There were just 1,250 copies printed for the first edition. Now news of anything even close to a scientific breakthrough spreads nearly instantly around the planet.

As NPR's Joe Palca reports, what's changed since 1859 is not just how fast new ideas are communicated, but how much of the public can understand them.

JOE PALCA: Even if you wanted to buy a copy of "On the Origin of Species" the day it came out, chances are you couldn't afford it.

Professor JIM SECORD (Director, Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge University): Books were pretty expensive. They were something that a gentleman could afford, but they certainly couldn't buy dozens of books a year or anything like that. It was quite a hefty sum.

PALCA: Jim Secord is director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge.

Prof. SECORD: A book like "The Origin of Species" costs the equivalent of a working man's weekly wage.

PALCA: Secord says there was a way to get your hands on a copy without actually buying it; not public libraries - there weren't many of those in 1859 -instead, people used something called a circulating library. Moody's was one of the most popular. Secord says for an annual fee, people could get sent the latest books, a sort of an early Netflix.

Prof. SECORD: It meant that many times, you know, you could get 20 or 30 people reading each copy that was actually sent out in this way. So there's a big multiplier factor of being a Moody's book.

PALCA: Moody's was evidently convinced "The Origin of Species" would be popular. The library bought 500 copies, nearly half the first print run.

Prof. SECORD: Moody's is really a key element in the circulation system for this kind of new philosophy of evolution that's coming in in the mid-19th century, and he really pushes Darwin in that regard.

PALCA: But subscribers to Moody's library were still mostly wealthy, well-educated people.

Jim Endersby is a historian of science at the University of Sussex. He says that was the audience Darwin was trying to reach with his new theory.

Dr. JIM ENDERSBY (Historian of Science, University of Sussex): He tries to keep the debate within the educated scientific audience as much as possible. And he expresses his arguments in a very diffident and cautious and polite way.

PALCA: Endersby says Darwin knew his ideas would be controversial, and by keeping the discussion among educated people, he hoped to get a fair hearing.

Now, when "The Origin of Species" first appeared, an educated layman was likely to be able to understand and evaluate Darwin's arguments.

Professor STEVEN SHAPIN (History of Science, Harvard University): The overlap between literary, philosophical, economic and scientific cultures was much greater than it is now.

PALCA: Steven Shapin is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. He says in the 19th century it was possible for an educated person to keep more or less up to date with what was happening in geology, in botany, in zoology. Today, that's beyond anyone's ability.

Dr. SHAPIN: Science has gotten more technical. Science has gotten more specialized. It's got more withdrawn from the general culture.

PALCA: And there's a lot more of it. What's more, Shapin says, today, anyone can read or hear about all this science virtually instantaneously. Everyone hears about Dolly the cloned sheep, the newest gene study, the latest on climate change.

Dr. SHAPIN: So we hear about scientific claims. We hear about scientific findings, but the proportion of the population that can evaluate them - can follow along with them as opposed to hearing about them - is very, very small. But I think people who say that you have to come to your own view, evaluate, make up your own mind are in a sense speaking something which is blandly true, but strictly speaking, impossible. It's impossible for any of us.

PALCA: Shapin says since people can't be completely conversant with all irrelevant science�

Dr. SHAPIN: They are looking for an answer to the question: Who's speaking the truth? Who can we rely on? Who can we trust?

PALCA: It's an awkward position to be in. Who should you trust? Your pastor, the professors at Harvard, NPR science correspondents? I wonder what we would've said in 1859 when "The Origin of Species" first appeared.

Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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