Mr. Charles Darwin Had the Gall to Ask*

As this is posted, it would have been Charles Darwin’s 213th birthday. As you’ll know, his work had a profound impact on our understanding of biology and the way species develop. His ideas caused a great deal of controversy, and certainly weren’t accepted by everyone. Yet, although they’ve been refined, they haven’t been refuted, although there’s been a lot of research into species development since his time.

But that’s what science is, really. People have new theories, they test them, and those theories are either shown to be wrong by further research or supported by further research. When people have new ideas, they often cause a little controversy (sometimes a lot of it!), but when those new ideas turn out to have merit, they move us forward.

If you think about it, the science of detection has developed in a similar way. It’s interesting, too, to see how it’s depicted in crime fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, brought what you might call ‘hard science’ to criminal investigation, and at the time, that was quite new. Things like the type of mud on shoes, or the shape and size of foot (or hoof!) prints, or the details of a hat, hadn’t really been considered as evidence before – not in a systematic way. And the science of deduction wasn’t commonly used, either. In the Holmes stories, there are several instances in which he raises a few eyebrows by his approach to getting evidence and deducting from it. But that came to be quite common. In fact, you might say that in some ways, Holmes was ahead of his time. Fingerprinting became a widely used approach to identifying suspects after the turn of the 20th Century.

Some forty years later, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot took a different approach to detecting. He certainly allowed that evidence like fingerprints could be important. And fans know that more than once, it’s that sort of evidence that helps him. At the same time, he believed that a detective could be misled by physical evidence. His focus was more on the personalities of the people involved, and the logic that would lead them to behave in certain ways. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, a piece of physical evidence leads the police in the wrong direction as they look for the murderer of Paul Renauld. Poirot looks at the case from a more psychological point of view; if an explanation for a case doesn’t explain everyone’s actions, and all the events, then it’s not the right explanation. It’s interesting (at least to me) to note that between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (more or less) came the work of Sigmund Freud. Christie most certainly knew of his theories and mentions them in a bit of her work. While Poirot is not a Freud devotee, his views reflect the increasing interest in psychology that Freud’s work inspired.

In the last decades, detection has changed dramatically as a result of technology. Computers, the Internet, DNA technology and more all play important roles now in solving crimes. Not everyone has been eager to embrace it all (right, fans of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus?), but you could argue it’s sparked a revolution in the way crimes are investigated. Some fictional sleuths resist these changes. For instance, Peter Lovesey’s Superintendent Peter Diamond believes in old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ approaches to solving crimes. As we learn in the first of the Diamond series, The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, he believes that interviewing witnesses, looking for clues, and making sense of the evidence is the real heart of solving a case. He hasn’t got much faith that computers can do things that a real detective can’t do. He eventually has to get used to modern technology, but he’s not the only one who likes to do things the ‘right’ way – the old-fashioned way. It took some time for things like DNA evidence to be accepted by police and in courts, and there are still those who wonder about them. Still, many, many cases are solved using those modern approaches.

Sometimes, new ideas don’t become quite so easily accepted. For instance, we know about the advantages of healthy eating. In Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, it’s decided that the members of the Cumbria Constabulary should have better diets, so the constabulary embarks on the Healthy Eating Initiative. The idea is that if the food available is nutritious and not laden with fat, sugar, etc., the police who work there will be healthier. In a sense, it’s quite a new idea, and the whole ‘wellness’ initiative has a lot of support from the top brass. But the police and other staff who work in the constabulary dislike it intensely. The food isn’t appealing, and several people don’t like someone else telling them what they should and shouldn’t eat. It all adds up to a great deal of resistance to what is supposed to be a revolutionary new way to promote a healthy lifestyle. In the end, it’s one of those theories that are tested and found quite wanting.

And that’s science, too. Sometimes what seems workable theoretically doesn’t pan out when it’s actually tested. Other times, these new developments and ideas move us forward. Either way, creative thinkers like Darwin make us take a look at the way we think and what we assume. And that can be a very positive thing.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from R.E.M.’s Man on the Moon.



10 thoughts on “Mr. Charles Darwin Had the Gall to Ask*

  1. I liked your examples Margot. I thought of Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. It demonstrates the fine line between success and failure in many scientific ventures. Thomas Alva Edison was a great inventor. His discovery of the light bulb was brilliant. He was a spectacular failure insisting electricity should be DC rather than AC. He engaged in ferocious legal battles with George Westinghouse over both the light bulb and electricity.


  2. Interesting Margot. I can imagine the police officers in Edwards’ book taking umbrage at being told what to eat. I can be a bit prickly myself, even when i know options and advice is being offered for my own good!


    1. Ha! I know what you mean, Col. It is annoying to feel someone’s telling you what you can and can’t eat, even if you know the advice is useful. And that’s exactly how those police officers in Edwards’ series feel!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. While scientific advances like DNA have certainly been mostly positive in real life crime detection, I don’t think they’ve been so positive for the fictional kind. I’m much more interested in clues and psychology than waiting for test results to reveal the murderer! It takes a lot of skill, I think, to write a police procedural today and manage to make it seem real while not getting bogged down in forensic science. My personal feeling is that when you’ve seen one fictional post-mortem, you’ve seen them all! 😉


    1. It really is a challenge, FictionFan, to balance telling an authentic story with making sure the story is absorbing. And it’s seldom as interesting to wait for DNA results as it is to look for clues, consider psychology, and do the ‘shoe leather ‘ thing! It is tricky, that’s for sure. And, yeah, there’s such a thing as post-mortem overload!

      Liked by 1 person

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