2009-02-12

Darwin Day


If you accept that natural traits are variable, that variation is heritable and that there is a struggle for existence, evolution by natural selection must follow.

- Charles Darwin


Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809 February 12 – 1882 April 19). This year also marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, originally published 1859 November 22.

London’s Olivia Judson describes the paradigm shift for the NY Times.

Before the “Origin,” similarities and differences between species were mere curiosities; questions as to why a certain plant is succulent like a cactus or deciduous like a maple could be answered only, “Because.” Biology itself was nothing more than a vast exercise in catalog and description. After the “Origin,” all organisms became connected, part of the same, profoundly ancient, family tree. Similarities and differences became comprehensible and explicable. In short, Darwin gave us a framework for asking questions about the natural world, and about ourselves.

Judson observes the following of Darwin the person:

Unlike many members of the human species, Darwin makes an easy hero. His achievements were prodigious; his science, meticulous. His work transformed our understanding of the planet and of ourselves.

At the same time, he was a humane, gentle, decent man, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. Judging by his letters, he was also sometimes quite funny.

Darwin’s growing awareness of the common ancestry of all creatures informed his feels about the paramount moral issue of his day: slavery.

He came from a family of ardent abolitionists, and he was revolted by what he saw in slave countries: “Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal .... It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.”

Matt Ridley (Spectator UK) notes the influence of economist Adam Smith on Darwin's ideas. If the 'invisible hand' of supply and demand regulates the economy, the invisible hand of natural selection regulates the biosphere.

Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. In his last year at Cambridge in 1829, he reported in a letter, ‘My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke’. At Maer, his uncle Josiah Wedgwood’s house in Staffordshire, he often met the lawyer and laissez-faire politician Sir James Mackintosh.... On the Beagle, he read the naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards, who took Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labour and applied it to the organs of the body. Darwin promptly re-applied it to the division of labour among specialised species in an ecosystem: ‘The advantage of diversification in the inhabitants of the same region is, in fact, the same as that of the physiological division of labour in the organs of the same individual body—a subject so well elucidated by Milne-Edwards.’


An excellent journalistic overview may be found in a special section of the Guardian UK and through the online Darwin Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History.

The New York Times provides an excellent assembly of stories. The emphasis falls more toward current issues in evolutionary science than history. But don’t miss the the charming exploration of The Origin of Species. The site describes Origin as a book that 'can still offer surprises, insights and pleasures, and it can be sampled here, with selections by prominent scientists of their favourite passages and discussions of why these passages are important.'

Another fine introduction appears at Darwin200, a site offered by the Natural History Museum in London. Events associated with the anniversary began last year and are scheduled to run through November 2009.

The Darwin 2009 Festival takes place in July this year at the naturalist’s alma mater, Cambridge University. 2009, as it happens, not only marks two anniversaries for Darwin but also the 800th anniversary of the founding of the school. Darwin left the school an irresistible quote in a letter to his cousin in 1837: 'The only evil at Cambridge was its being too pleasant.'

A symposium is slated for September 22-24 this year at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia.

Darwin Online offers a comprehensive listing of commemorative events around the world. The site is also an excellent resource for those seeking copies of Darwin publications and manuscripts.

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Abraham Lincoln at 200

Today is the 200th birthday of America’s most beloved president. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky.

It’s a safe bet that the world will little note nor long remember anything said about the man here. But to all the tributes that continue to be made I want to add one vignette.

During a recent trip to Thailand I visited a museum devoted to that country’s history and the people who have shaped it. Dioramas lined the halls, filled with skilfully executed wax figures. I walked from room to room, seeing how Thai farmers have grown crops and Thai families have raised children. I saw all of Thailand’s kings, including Chulalongkorn, the revered monarch who abolished slavery, and his father, Mongkut, protector of the country's independence who features prominently in the book and film Anna and the King.

I rounded a corner. At a desk, with the Stars and Stripes stretched behind him on a wall, sat Abraham Lincoln. His stovepipe hat lay on a chair nearby. In one hand he held a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

And I felt moved and proud and grateful, all at once.

Lincoln’s influence on Taiwan’s history won’t garner much attention from American commentators today, but it is no secret here. Sun Yat-Sen looked to Lincoln for inspiration as he fought to establish a new, more humane society in China to replace imperial rule. His successor Chiang Kai-Shek saw the love Lincoln freely received generations after his death and hoped something like it could be his, when all was done.

Sun said his Three Principles of the People - nationhood, democracy, livelihood - were derived from Lincoln’s ideal of government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'

When Chiang took power he taught the children of China, and later Taiwan, to regard Sun as 'the Father of Our Country.' Aware of the association of that title with George Washington in America, Chiang hoped posterity would see him as the Lincoln to Sun’s Washington. Upon his death his party, the Kuomingtang, took the hint and built a memorial for Chiang whose inner chamber evoked the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC even as its architecture evoked Sun’s Mausoleum in Nanjing.

A chasm gapes, though, between wanting to be a Lincoln and actually being one. Chiang’s memorial in Taipei does not draw the admirers or prompt the hushed reverence Lincoln’s memorial in Washington inspires every day. A popular consensus is lacking even to leave the Taipei structure dedicated to Chiang.

The difference? Action. It is one thing to talk about democracy as a nice thing for the people to acquire some day, long after you and your cohorts have denied yourself none of the trappings of power and then left the scene. It is another thing to take democracy as a fundamental right belonging to all, then order your life and destiny according to its verdicts--and then, when you see it threatened, fight to the death for it, expecting nothing for yourself in return.

That is what Lincoln did. That is why free people still light candles for him, of their own free will, year after year.

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An earlier version of this post appeared on this date in 2008.

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Conductor's Notebook