How science has shifted our sense of identity

Nathaniel Comfort 03/11/2019
Biological advances have repeatedly changed who we think we are, writes Nathaniel Comfort, in the third essay of a series marking Nature’s anniversary on how the past 150 years have shaped science today.

In the iconic frontispiece to Thomas Henry Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), primate skeletons march across the page and, presumably, into the future: “Gibbon, Orang, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Man.” Fresh evidence from anatomy and palaeontology had made humans’ place on the scala naturae scientifically irrefutable. We were unequivocally with the animals — albeit at the head of the line.

Nicolaus Copernicus had displaced us from the centre of the Universe; now Charles Darwin had displaced us from the centre of the living world. Regardless of how one took this demotion (Huxley wasn’t troubled; Darwin was), there was no doubting Huxley’s larger message: science alone can answer what he called the ‘question of questions’: “Man’s place in nature and his relations to the Universe of things.”

Huxley’s question had a prominent place in the early issues of Nature magazine. Witty and provocative, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ was among the most in-demand essayists of the day. Norman Lockyer, the magazine’s founding editor, scored a coup when he persuaded his friend to become a regular contributor. And Huxley knew a soapbox when he saw one. He hopped up and used Nature’s pages to make his case for Darwinism and the public utility of science.