It can seem like we have been talking about Darwin all year, probably because we have. The occasion is the double anniversary of the bicentennial of his birth, and the publication 150 years ago today of The Origin of Species.

Evolution, and more specifically the Origin itself, is one of the most successful franchises in the history of science. Despite their importance, the Principia, the general theory of relativity and quantum electrodynamics have never found their way into the popular psyche in the same way. Relativity probably comes closest, but while many people know that e=mc2, a far smaller proportion know what it means or why it matters, let alone how to derive it.

In contrast, almost everyone knows that evolution means humans arose from an ape species. Indeed, humanity still is an ape species, albeit one with a highly developed sense of entitlement. Darwin is associated with dinosaurs, ape men, fossils, and to his great benefit, the peerless David Attenborough. You could scarcely wish for a better champion than such an eloquent and accomplished natural historian. Nevertheless despite the elevated position of evolution inspired books in the Pop Science bestseller lists, public understanding of natural selection is patchy.

It is difficult to study evolutionary biology, especially in the US, without being acutely aware that many people find it offensive. The reasons for this are many and varied. Some object to the repudiation of their creation myths. More generally, some people feel queasy with the lack of morals in the Origin, though why it should be there, in a scientific text, escapes me. They find their experience of love demeaned by the idea that it is a trick played on us by our genes, to get reproduced. The vision of us as “gigantic lumbering robots” in the service of our genes (probably the most unfortunate metaphor Richard Dawkins ever devised) is a turn off. Tied together with that sense of entitlement I mentioned earlier, this can lead people to feel deeply uncomfortable, even insulted. After all, we’re not just animals, are we?

Yes we are. I only take issue with ‘just’. Some of my best friends are animals.

Others, often on the opposite side of the political spectrum, are disturbed by the idea that evolution could support features of society which are politically unattractive: for example, by suggesting a selective rationale for behaviour like rape. This is understandably disquieting, to say the least. When considering such statements, it may be useful to take Dobzhansky’s famous quote that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’, and remind ourselves that it does not necessarily follow that all explanations which cite evolution will make sense.

Here’s a classic example. Consider the following quote,

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

which is widespread on the internet and usually attributed to Darwin, except he never said it. Have a look for it in his published work and correspondence. It is instead a platitude invented comparatively recently by management consultants. Obviously they discovered people took it so much more seriously as a catchy justification for widespread redundancy, when they were told Darwin said it. As a statement of natural selection, it’s not even accurate.

If it’s annoying for Darwin’s good name to be pressed into service by a bunch of lackwit chancers who get a hard on at the thought of downsizing, how much more so are books like ‘The Political Gene’ which try to blame him for everything from the holocaust to school shootings in the US (apparently shooters often cite ‘natural selection’ when explaining their actions although their short lifespan and limited reproductive success suggest they have not thought this through). The book, quoted at length in the Sunday Times magazine, is long on polemic about Bad Things, but short on understanding of natural selection itself. The newspaper should be ashamed of placing the article under the science part of its website.

In the Origin’s carefully laid out arguments and examples Darwin provided biology with nothing less than its grand unifying theory. In so doing, he has become both a scientific icon and a target for those seeking, for whatever reason, to discredit his ideas or push their own. I will be raising a glass to his great work tonight. But it would be a mistake to fixate too much on his book. The most amazing thing about Darwin is not just that he was right. He was so much more right than he knew. Darwin’s greatest achievement is the staggering breadth of scientific work, from epidemiology to cosmology, which is unimaginable without him.