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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