Happy birthday to Darwin
published in the Asheville Citizen Times
One of humanity’s greatest thinkers, Charles Darwin, was born on this day 205 years ago. (Abraham Lincoln shares the same birthday: Feb.12, 1809.) Born in Shrewsbury, England, Darwin was a kind-hearted and modest man, as well as a loving husband and father. His extreme passion for understanding the natural world led to what many believe to be ‘‘the greatest idea of all time’’: the theory of evolution.
Darwin was not only a top-notch zoologist, but also a brilliant geologist, botanist, paleontologist, anthropologist, geographer and writer. During a 5-year-long trip around the world (beginning at age 23) as the geologist and naturalist aboard the surveying ship HMS Beagle, he meticulously explored many different populations of plants and animals, as well as aboriginal humans. Upon his return to England, it took him another 22 years to fully digest, understand and write about his theory that during immensely long periods of time (now called geologic or deep time), populations of life forms can change in many different and surprising ways (or not), depending on their ability to survive and reproduce. He suggested that all species, including humans, are a result of this simple ‘‘natural selection’’ process and that we share common ancestry with some life-forms that came before us. His treatise, the ‘‘Origin of Species,’’ became an instant bestseller and was celebrated as a breakthrough in understanding one of our most essential questions: ‘‘Where did we come from?’’
What do Darwin’s contributions have to do with today’s world? Everything. Evolutionary theory plays a key role in modern medicine, agriculture, soil, water, air and wildlife conservation, and human psychology and sociology. As National Medal of Science award winner Theodosius Dobzhansky (father of evolutionary genetics and a deeply religious man) once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Why is it so important that our children be taught evolution? Evolutionary theory is a perfect example of the power of science. While we cannot replicate a 3,800 million year old experiment (life first appeared on Earth 3.8 billion years ago), evolutionary theory teaches our children how to combine critical thinking with observation and evidence (the fossil record, DNA analysis, radioactive dating, etc.) to gain a greater understanding of the nature of things. Young people who incorporate evidence-based, scientific thinking into their world-view, will be better prepared to negotiate a rapidly changing world.
I am not advocating that all humans adopt a strictly naturalistic or materialistic worldview. All I am saying is that the battle between those who support a scientific approach to understanding our origins and those who believe in creationism (Earth is 6,000 years old and was created by God in six days) is over. Indeed, most mainstream religious communities support evolution theory [statements from religious organizations]. Yet many fundamentalist religious organizations continue to use creationism as a litmus test for faith and have been somewhat successful in thwarting efforts by our nation’s schools to teach evolutionary biology in the science classroom. What I am advocating, just as I’m sure Charles Darwin would do were he alive today, is to encourage all members of our species, especially our children, to not be afraid of scientific knowledge, to not see evolution as a threat to faith and to seek ways to use new scientific discoveries to create more humane and just societies.
Happy Birthday, Charles.