Into the mature cycle

Lucy Hodges

This article originally appeared in the Time Higher Education Supplement|, 23 July 1999

What is happening to Darwin@LSE, the international focus for Darwinian ideas? From 1995-98, the London School of Economics ran a series of Darwin seminars to packed lecture theatres. The aim has been to broadcast Darwinian ideas and their implications for humans and to give vent to the fermcnt of excitement within modern evolutionary biology.

The seminars attracted huge amounts of interest from the media and from members of the public, who trotted along just as they did in Victorian times. They lapped up theories about why men prefer women with hourglass figures, why step-children are at greater risk of abuse than natural children and why women suffer sex discrimination. The events acted as a forum for intellectuals from all over the world. And, inevitably, they also aroused antagonism from those who believe the New Darwinians exaggerate the claims for natural selection and play into the hands of the political right.

Last Christmas, seminar organiser Helena Cronin announced that the public events were ceasing. The LSE's Darwin forum would devote itself to research, she said. Soon questions were being raised about whether it had run out of money, whether it lacked the support of the LSE's new director, Anthony Giddens, and whether it had fallen foul of a backlash against New Darwinism.

The answer to each question appears to be no. Darwin@LSE has not run out of money because it never had much, Cronin says. Since 1995, when the seminars began, it has survived on very small sums from benefactors - £1,000 here, £2,000 there. The Damon de Laszlo Foundation has now pledged £20,000 a year as seed money to put things on a proper footing. In the end, Cronin decided she could no longer sacrifice her own research and writing to continue to act as a low-paid administrative skivvy.

So, Darwin@LSE has not closed down. But it is, in effect, on hold as the school's fund-raising machinery cranks into action. Giddens says he supports Cronin's work and her role. 'In a place like the LSE, which is a social science institution, we have to give attention to developments happening in the natural sciences. In the case of evolutionary theory, there are obvious implications for the other areas that the school covers, so I am very interested in preserving Darwinian studies in the LSE." He adds: "I do not see it as purely a personal fiefdom, though. It has to become an institutional part of the LSE.'

Cronin is so personally tied to New Darwinism at the school because she has been the driving force behind it. Author of The Ant and The Peacock, chosen as one of the nine best books of the year by the New York Times, she has been able to attract big names from around the world to speak because she has an academic standing of her own. Unlike most academics, she is media-friendly, glamorous and articulate - which means she is the butt of resentment from others who are not getting attention.

'Academics tend to dislike anyone who is successful in the public marketplace,' says Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco. 'If you write a book that sells well, there is resentment. Ditto, if you generate public lectures and bring a lot of international attention. It has nothing to do with Darwin.'

But there is also evidence of a backlash against New Darwinism, Ekman says. The book by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, Woman: An intimate biography was a frontal assault on the Darwinian view of male/female differences. Cronin was asked to review the book for the New York Times; she she did so and her critical review was spiked.

'Looking at things from an evolutionary perspective in the social and behavioural sciences is still quite a novel activity,' Ekman says. 'Stronger intellectual forces come from the Hume and Locke tradition. There is resentment about the amount of attention that Darwin studies seem to have generated.'

Now that the seminars are over, Cronin is making progress with her book on the evolution of physical and psychological differences between men and women. It will annoy feminists who argue that there are few evolved differences between the sexes. A feminist herself, Cronin nonetheless believes that feminism has got itself into a mess by denying the findings of modern science.

Women and men have evolved to be different, she argues. Men are on average more competitive, risk-taking, single-minded, opportunistic, promiscuous and and aware of status than women.

With regard to Darwin@LSE, Ekman says: 'My hope is that the seminars will continue but that Helena will be able to attract the administrative support, so she will not have to be the one who washes the dishes. The LSE has got a lot of attention from this and has put virtually nothing into it.'

Because they attracted people from all walks of life - A S Byatt and Jonathan Miller as well as scientists - the seminars made an impact on the intellectual life of Britain. Some hope they will continue.

Reproduced by kind permission of the THES. The author has given her permission for use of her work free of charge.