Thursday, February 5, 2009

Darwin and China - His 200th Approaching


On the 12 February, we celebrate the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin. To say this is an important event is obvious especially given the recent resurgence of nonsense from the anti-evolution elements among the religious/superstitious sections of society. Indeed if you read one book on the great man this year Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore would be a good choice. Still among all the celebrations, books, documentaries, essays and memorials etc it got me wondering about Darwin and his impact on China.

The only real study of the subject I know in English is China and Charles Darwin by James Reeve Pusey which was published in 1983. Of course, Darwin never visited China, but his ideas have been important in forming modern China none the less. Reeve Pusey argues that Darwinism was the first great Western theory to make an impact on the Chinese and, from 1895 until at least 1921, as thought, politics and ideas rapidly modernised across the country, it was the dominant Western "ism" influencing Chinese politics and thought. For those from mild reformers to the communists seeking alternatives and a break with China’s traditional belief systems Darwinism was as important in China as it had been for those seeking to break the unscientific and superstitious stranglehold of Christianity in the West. For his part James Pusey bases his analysis on a survey of journals issued from 1896 to 1910 and, after a break for revolutionary action, from 1915 to 1926, with emphasis on the era between the Sino-Japanese War and the Republican Revolution.

Within his writings Darwin did draw on knowledge gained from China that he had access to. A useful essay in a 1984 issue of The History of Science Society Journal - Charles Darwin's Chinese Sources - by Jixing Pan (1) notes that Darwin did respect Chinese science though not enough to footnote his learnings from it very much. Darwin’s major China-related interest was in the domestication of animals – silkworms and all manner of farm livestock including goldfish and pigeons as well as sheep, cows and pigs. He was also interested in plant cultivation – various fruits as well as tobacco and wheat. When writing about the domestication of goldfish, carp and pigs Darwin does especially note China.

Happy 200th Mr Darwin and more power to you.

1) Isis, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Sep., 1984), pp. 530-534

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