Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is a double anniversary - it is the 200th birthday of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In short, the theory of evolution. The idea that all life developed over time from less complex forms dates back to some of the ancient Greek philosophers and the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, and despite the downward pressure on the idea by the Christian Church over the centuries it has persisted. Darwin's voyage aboard the HMS Beagle started to crystallize the theory in his mind, and he sought evidence to buttress the theory.

He was still deciding whether or not to publish when word reached him that another naturalist, a fellow named Wallace, was working on the same line from a different angle. Darwin was persuaded to publish his work, with results we are still seeing today.

Now, there were things that Darwin didn't know and, indeed, couldn't know, based on the scientific advances and technology of the times. Gregor Mendel, the monk who first described the laws of heredity (the theory that traits such as brown hair and blue eyes are inheritable; passed on from generation to generation) labored in obscurity and Darwin had never heard of him.

I personally think that Darwin would have been enthralled and excited by the advances made in the past 150 years. Advances in genetics and in all aspects of chemistry and biology, as well as the discoveries of transitional fossils have added to the body of evidence that buttresses the theory of evolution.

Stupid people constantly harp on whether a person "believes" in evolution, as if scientific endeavor, theories and facts required faith. When a person asks me whether I believe in evolution, I begin my reply by pointing out the fallacy in their reasoning. It never fails to get things off on the right foot.

For all those people who still have trouble accepting the landmark role and impact the publication of Darwin's work has made on biology and on science in general, I say this:

Evolve. Catch up to the rest of us.


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