Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Darwin Day

Happy Darwin Day! Today we celebrate the 200th birthday of a scientific revolutionary. Like Pasteur, Mendel, Newton and Einstein, Darwin ushered in a shift in our perception of the evidence. In Darwin's lifetime the nature of life and its place in the world was explained by a mixture of assumption and religion. The science that existed was disparate. Biologists were just starting to understand heredity and variation. That variation displayed such great diversity at times, and yet such curious similarities. The distribution seemed to make little sense. Geologists were pointing to the massively stratified nature of their favourite medium (rock) as evidence that the world was far older than they had expected and wondered at the curious sequence of petrified organic structures they found within. Layer upon layer, that same progression across every strata and every geological discontinuity, across the world. The evidence was all there, merely waiting for someone to bring it together into one clear picture.

In November, we'll celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of that clear picture. Darwin's most prominent work, On the Origin of Species. Just as Newton's world was superceded, but not destroyed, by Einstein's; so too has Darwin's work found itself but a small part of a grander theory. His Laws of Natural Selection remain intact, his notions on heredity and genetics superceded by his contemporary Mendel. Both now standing along side the molecular genetics of Watson, Crick and Franklin.

There are those who say that scientists hold Darwin sacred. That his theory has become dogma. But it is likely that if Darwin read a modern biology textbook today, he would certainly disagree. He might even be a little annoyed at the absence of some of his hypotheses. But he would be delighted that natural selection has endured so well. And delighted that humanity has cast aside the notions of racial species divides which he loathed so much.

He gave us a part of the picture. We have accepted those ideas of his which have been borne out in experimentation, and discarded those which did not. Concepts that brought the evidence together in a revolutionary way. He was the first to understand our true nature and our place in the world. For that, we celebrate a great man and a scientist who stands as an example of dedication and remarkable insight.

Happy Birthday Charlie.


Owlfarmer said...

I just wanted to let you know that I've linked your tribute to my own (on the Cabinet, though, not Owl's Farm), and to thank you for continuously reminding me that not all human brains are devolving these days.

Happy Darwin Day!

The Biologista said...

Cheers Owl, I'll check out your tribute now!