February 12 is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the old guy, or at least his ideas, are still in pretty good shape. While evolutionary theory has been broadened and elaborated extensively in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin’s fundamental concept of natural selection remains central to our understanding of life’s diversity.
New Scientist noted that 2009 is also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope, and used this as an excuse to ask a panel of eight whether Galileo or Darwin had done more to knock man off his pedestal. Opinion was divided, but Darwin was favoured by a small majority. One comment in the introduction by Michael Brooks was that Galileo has had more impact in the long term. His rationale for saying this was that far more people believe the Earth goes round the sun than believe people are descended from animals via natural selection, with the figures in the US being 80 percent and 50 percent respectively.
Perhaps this is just a reflection of the greater length of time people have had to get used to Galileo (it’s alarming that 20 percent are still unsure the Earth goes round the sun…), but I suspect it’s an indication of just how disturbing many people still find the idea of evolution. It’s not that Darwin’s ideas have had less impact, but rather that their impact is so severe that many respond with denial.
This morning I started reading The Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll. Just as DNA can definitively determine paternity in custody cases, Carroll writes, so too can it show the ‘paternity’ of entire species, establishing patterns of evolution beyond any reasonable doubt. Genetic research is illuminating, and being illuminated by evolutionary theory in ways that were unthinkable 30 years ago. Yet while US citizens are entirely supportive of DNA’s applications in the courtroom, many remain uncomfortable with the philosophical implications of DNA research. The same applies to a lesser extent in this country.
So wherever you are on 12 February, raise a glass to Charles Darwin. His life is certainly a thing to celebrate. To mark the occasion, there are numerous events occurring around the country – see page 15. If you can’t get to one of these, have some skeptical friends round for a Darwinian dinner, or head off to the pub with them for a quiet toast to the father of modern biology. Anniversaries like this one don’t come around too often.