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Jane Austen is replacing Charles Darwin–and that’s a very good thing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The new face of the £10 note

Earlier this week, the Bank of England made an announcement that should warm many a literati’s heart: Jane Austen will be the new face of the £10 note. The reason for the change? Critics had long been demanding a more equitable representation of women in Britain’s currency—a gender imbalance that had grown even more severe when the £5 note’s Elizabeth Fry made way for Sir Winston Churchill in late April. That left an arsenal entirely deprived of non-royal women (Elizabeth II remains a-circulating, as always), as the only other commoner female to have ever graced Britain’s paper money supply, Florence Nightingale, had been withdrawn from circulation in 1994. Such an obvious disparity was, quite obviously, long overdue for redress.

To me, though, the symbolism of the moment has nothing whatsoever to do with Austen’s gender. What warms my heart isn’t that she’s female, or that she’s rectifying some sort of past gender discrimination, but something else entirely: Austen is replacing Charles Darwin. A writer replacing a scientist. A creator of fiction replacing one of the quintessential figures of the hard sciences. That, in my mind, represents an equally important, and perhaps more pernicious, imbalance—and one no less worthy of acknowledgment.

The choice of a nation’s currency is filled with symbolic meaning: who, out of all the people in the national history, is worthy of inclusion in this most national of all things, the monetary system? Who is worth passing around, sharing, having in front of your eyes each time you reach for your wallet? Who do we want to represent us to the foreign eye when it first glimpses our currency in the airport exchange kiosk or on a first visit to the store? The choice says much about values and priorities, about the type of face a country wants to put forward for external scrutiny and national pride.

I don’t know that anything apart from gender was on the mind of Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s recently appointed governor, when he made this particular decision, but for me, the choice is filled with secondary meaning. It paints an equivalence between the arts and the sciences: each face is equally worthy of assuming the same place and value in Britain’s present. Jane Austen is just as worthy of constant memory as is Charles Darwin. She isn’t somehow inferior because she didn’t create something in the hard sciences, nor he, somehow superior because his contribution was a scientific one to her “soft,” unscientific prose.

Charles Darwin will be phased out by 2016.

It’s a point worth stressing in a society where, more often than not, the type of knowledge that we acquire through the sciences is seen as somehow inherently superior to that acquired through the humanities, where an ever-growing stress is placed on what is practical over what seems so, well, frivolous. I’ve written repeatedly about why that reasoning is so fallacious, so will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that it’s an imbalance we don’t consider nearly as often (hence, my earlier choice of the word pernicious).

The percentage of females in the history of Britain’s banknotes has been put to the highest scrutiny. But consider this: yes, there were only two women, but there were also ever only two writers, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. The rest of the fourteen luminaries (I’m not counting the two future releases, Austen and Churchill)? Politicians and economists, scientists and engineers, a nurse and some steam boat manufacturers. The only other representative of a ‘softer’ discipline: the composer Sir Edward Elgar. That’s a minority for the arts that is just as clear and overwhelming as the one that has garnered all of the attention, the minority for the women. And it’s one that should be no less disturbing. What happens to a society that forgets its softer side, that replaces everything that’s not immediately practical with something that is? Better writers than I have already responded to that question—but whether you espouse the realism of Joseph Brodsky or the dystopianism of Ray Bradbury, the answer is no less bleak.

The legacy of a Charles Darwin is not to be underestimated, nor his importance to knowledge to be slighted. But the legacy of a Jane Austen is no less crucial. So let’s take a moment to consider that symbolism, the equivalence implied in the gesture of replacing the one with the other. I hope that’s a message that is heard just as clearly as the more obvious gender lesson. It is certainly no less important, and no less worthy of our attention.

Image credits: Jane Austen, portrait by Edward Duyckinick, Wikimedia Commons, public domain; Charles Darwin, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. edwardr 4:54 pm 07/26/2013

    Sorry, but I can’t get on board with the removal of Charles Darwin.

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  2. 2. Kathy K. 5:06 pm 07/26/2013

    Thanks Maria for your beautiful piece. I agree that there needs to be a better balance.

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  3. 3. chris_weiss 7:39 am 07/28/2013

    I am sure that when a person is a writer, she will wish to create a societal equivalence between the arts and sciences. A writer who admits that somehow a novel has less value than “Origin of Species” would be shooting herself in the foot. However, when we look at the enduring impact on today’s society of the arts and sciences, so few people have read Pride and Prejudice compared to the people impacted by the scientific revolution initiated by Darwin, it is impossible to establish such an equivalence.

    If the economics of studying the arts are compared to economics of studying the sciences, I believe the money associated with each shows where the economics leads. No matter how much Ms. Konnikova would like to put the arts and sciences on the same level, the economic value society places on these things speaks for itself.

    Having read “Pride and Prejudice” in college and having watched the updated movie now many times with my daughters, I can admit Jane Austen was a wonderful writer with enduring value. Also, my family and I are a family of readers. However, none of us would ever claim that Jane Austen has had the same impact as Charles Darwin.

    Putting Jane Austen on a note has gender equity value. As a father of daughters who I wish to see become independent women with careers, I believe female role models should always be presented. Jane Austen is an icon of British literature. Reading more into this beyond gender equity is just baseless extrapolation.

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  4. 4. marclevesque 10:12 am 07/28/2013

    Very very appreciated

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  5. 5. karl 1:38 pm 08/1/2013

    Chris, according then to your reasoning, Britney Spears, Mike Tyson and Maradona should have their respective bills, those guys earned way more money on a year than Austen or Darwin ever saw, inflation adjusted.

    Deciding who to put on a bill is a pain in the gluteal region, that is why the Euro bills have only bridges and open windows, if you put Faraday on a bill the French will remember the legal dispute that he had with Coulomb, if you put Heisenberg or Von Braun…
    Now, the article says it is important to have balance, be it on arts and sciences (how many an engineer has a role model on Scotty or wanted to have an R2 droid?) because they are depend on each other, and in my opinion they both show how well is your nation doing (if you can spare people to become scientists and artists from doing job just to survive you must be doing something well)

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  6. 6. chris_weiss 10:14 am 08/2/2013

    Karl -> I was talking about the importance to society and lasting impact. In 30 years, people will say “Britney who?” However, both Darwin and Jane Austen will still be remembered.

    You have stood up a straw man argument. I included the concept of impact. You focused only economics.

    My objection to the original article was putting the societal impact of Darwin and Jane Austen on the same level, and be extension claiming that both the arts and sciences are of equal value. They are not. The economic component had to deal with compensation. The average doctor in the US makes around $150k. A PhD. research director will typically top $100k as well. Most artists work in the service industry trying to fund their craft.

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  7. 7. Peter_C 7:54 pm 08/12/2013

    Be much better if she replaced Churchill. But it’s not to late. Maybe there could be a campaign for Darwin to replace Churchill.

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