Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday

Before the date passes, I wanted to give a little shout-out to the man who (with Mendel) basically invented modern biology as we know it.

Before Darwin, biology was classification, of species of plants and animals into different categories, the curious creations of unknowable forces. After Darwin, biology was a science, an interconnected system of predators and prey, habitats and ecosystems operating under a consistent set of rules. He was a great innovator and greatly contributed to the advancement of human knowledge.

What's frustrating, of course, is that so many people are still irrationally opposed to Darwin's ideas, mostly without really understanding them. You don't see people lined up in opposition to Nicolas Copernicus for removing the Earth from the center of the universe, or Freud for exposing the complex workings of the irrational brain, but because Darwin's ideas don't correspond to the anthropocentric notions that so many believe in, people still blame him for everything from moral decline to the Holocaust. But the great movement of humanity and science over the last thousand years or so has been the gradual acceptance and understanding of reality, and I believe that over time, the arc of history leans towards knowledge. Which is why Darwin should be celebrated, this year as always.

Also, who knew that on the same day in 1809, in a wealthy home in England and in a log cabin in Kentucky, two of the most controversial figures of the 19th century were born? Weird coincidence.

2 comments:

Erik said...

Sometimes I worry we worship Darwin, the man, too much. Sure, he was the first to propose this idea, but it really is the idea, the theory, that matters. That is what science is about - these theories, hypotheses and facts - not the fellow who did it all. I would suggest we get rid of the word "Darwinism" altogether and just talk about evolution on its own. Otherwise, we start sounding like the people trying to bring down science.

Jeff McMahon said...

You have a point, but I don't think there's really much of a personality cult around Darwin himself, as there certainly is around Lincoln, or Einstein. His name is shorthand, and that's about it. I'm bringing him up primarily because I think it's important to recognize that there are huge numbers of people out there who are blindly opposed to the very concept of evolution, and not because I'm a devotee.

But since "Darwinism" as a word is pretty much exclusively used by those who are opposed to it, I agree that it should be shuffled into the trash.