On this day in 1809…

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As a biology related site, I would be remiss to not mention that today marks the 199th anniversary of the birth of Darwin.

More commonly called: Darwin’s Birthday.

Okay, I have to admit I have a problem with the celebration of people’s birthdays after they have died. As far as I’m concerned, the only reason we celebrate birthdays is so we can remind ourselves of how long we have (personally) been alive on this planet. Once you kick the bucket, the birthdays should stop.

Now don’t think I’m picking on old Charles here. I have issues with Christians celebrating Christ’s birth, or Americans celebrating Washington, or Lincoln’s birthday. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Being born, while fascinating from a biological standpoint, really is no big deal. It’s the acts of these people that really made the difference, not their actual existence (though I suppose Christians could argue the Christ analogy).

But then I’m a misanthrope who places actions above people anyway, so that might be part of my reasoning.

Besides, it’s not like we don’t celebrate the reason for Darwin’s popularity. Every year, there is a celebration (or at least an observance) of the such and such anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (which will be 150 years ago, next year). It was this publication that made Darwin so famous (and infamous).

And while Darwin did wind up changing world view, it is important to keep in mind what it was that he actually did. Too many people credit Darwin with the concept of evolution, but that concept had been around since Ancient Greece. Jean Baptiste Lamarck, and even Darwin’s father, Erasmus, all made attempts at explaining a known biological phenomena. Namely: life evolves.

No, what Darwin did with the Origin of Species, was come up with a plausible mechanism for how evolution operated. Not only was it plausible, but it was also testable. Thus, Darwin warrants praise because he removed the nebulous nature of evolution, and grounded it firmly in the realm of science.

Which isn’t to say we know all there is to know about evolution. Far from it; in fact. Since Darwin’s day, we have learned about how organisms pass their traits to one another, and the importance of genetics to the evolution of new species. Still, the core concepts from Darwin’s day, namely that the environment makes the final decision on who goes and who stays, remains the same.

Darwin was also responsible for bringing evolution to the forefront. By grounding evolution in the realm of science, Darwin had unintentionally thrown a wrench into the already rickety creationist world view of the time. That Darwin knew the ramifications of his findings, can hardly be doubted. The fact that he waited years after writing various drafts of The Origin of Species, before finally publishing it, stands as a fine testament to his trepidations about his discovery.

Which brings me to another point. Though Darwin feared retaliation from the public, and the church, for his apparently blasphemous discovery, he feared being scooped even more. For, as many students of evolutionary biology are now well aware (if not, Wikipedia currently has a good rundown of the history.) Alfred Russell Wallace is equally deserving of credit for the theory of Natural Selection. Both men, who had never met, and were working in completely different parts of the globe, had come across the same results. In science this is a veritable slam dunk in terms of the stability of a theory. For if both parties, through independent means, achieve the same results, then chances are quite likely that those results are damned accurate.

Still, in science, publication is the name of the game, and the goal in this case, was to get all that hard work out into the public eye and thus establish priority. So that is exactly what Darwin did. And while Wallace might have cursed him for beating him to the punch, I’m sure he was happier that it was Darwin who received all the vitriol that would ensue from a populace that was still thoroughly entrenched in a creationary view of life.

Now here we are, 149 years after the publication of one of the most landmark pieces of work ever created. 149 years after humanity realized that they lived on a planet that was in constant flux, and that the life they saw that day, would not be the same life a million years from now.

And of course, 199 years after the birth of the man who took a gamble by publishing one of the most blasphemous, heathenous pieces of literature for its day. A gamble that has paid off in spades, with our greater understanding of where life came from, and where it might be going (which is to say nothing for all the medical advances that occurred specifically because we realized that life does evolve).

So today we celebrate Darwin’s birthday. Still, I don’t like the taste of that saying, and much prefer the one that Skepchick Rebecca uses:

Happy Darwin Day!

If it was a few months earlier, I’d say to celebrate by getting your flu shot.


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