Saturday, February 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charles

Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago today. Of course, a couple of years ago was the big celebration all over the web, including the terrific stuff linked at blog for Darwin and what the Digital Cuttlefish came up with.

This year's not a big round number, so there's less. But the man is still worth celebrating. Why? Not because he was perfect, infallible, or laid down a sacred text. No. Because he opened our eyes to understanding out place in nature; because nothing in biology makes sense without his insight; and because his work was so good that 150 (oops, 152) years later, it still stands up. So here's to you, Charles Darwin! And here's a bit from Verlyn Klinkenborg's essay last year in the New York Times - it's still good, especially that last paragraph.
His central idea — evolution by means of natural selection — was in some sense the product of his time, as Darwin well knew. He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, who grasped that there was something wrong with the conventional notion of fixed species. And his theory was hastened into print and into joint presentation by the independent discoveries of Alfred Russel Wallace half a world away.

But Darwin’s theory was the product of years of patient observation. We love to believe in science by epiphany, but the work of real scientists is to rigorously test their epiphanies after they have been boiled down to working hypotheses. Most of Darwin’s life was devoted to gathering evidence for just such tests. He writes with an air of incompleteness because he was aware that it would take the work of many scientists to confirm his theory in detail.

I doubt that much in the subsequent history of Darwin’s idea would have surprised him. The most important discoveries — Mendel’s genetics and the structure of DNA — would almost certainly have gratified him because they reveal the physical basis for the variation underlying evolution. It would have gratified him to see his ideas so thoroughly tested and to see so many of them confirmed. He could hardly have expected to be right so often.

....Darwin recedes, but his idea does not. It is absorbed, with adaptations, into the foundation of the biological sciences. In a very real sense, it is the cornerstone of what we know about life on earth.
Update: Here's a video a friend of mine sent me:

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