February 12, 2012

Honoring Darwin

DarwinToday is Darwin Day, a celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin on Feb. 12, 1809. Whether we are talking about science or religion, Darwin's significance cannot be overstated. Darwin Day is a perfect excuse to reflect on Darwin's contributions and where we'd be without them.

To say that Darwin gave us the foundation of modern biology is accurate, but it only begins to convey his significance through the ages. In fact, such a statement seems to imply that Darwin's contribution was primarily historic. And yet, his work continues to have great relevance today.

Here's how Jobsanger put it in his Darwin Day post:
Today, more than a century after his death, Darwin remains one of the most respected and revered scientists of all time by those who respect science and reality -- and one of the most hated men of all time by fundamentalist theocrats who refuse to accept the reality of evolution.
That sums it up pretty well, doesn't it. For those of us who live in the real world, Darwin is a hero. For those who prefer to live in fantasy, he is someone to demonize, even though those who do so never seem to want to live without his contributions.

Dr. Coyne (Why Evolution is True) reminds us of Darwin's primary contributions to modern biology:
  1. The idea of evolution itself: the transformation of populations
  2. The idea that evolution was gradual rather than instantaneous involving the replacement of types in populations through differential reproduction rather than change of the individuals themselves
  3. The idea that all species have common ancestors, however dissimilar they are
  4. The idea of a branching tree of life, whereby one original species gave rise to all of life’s diversity today (this is simply the flip side of common ancestry)
  5. The idea that adaptive evolution is the result of a blind, and mindless process: natural selection, which accounts for the appearance of “design” that was previously imputed to the wisdom of God.
What Darwin gave us was nothing less than a scientific revolution. After Copernicus showed us that the geocentric view of the universe (i.e., the earth is the center of the universe and the planets revolve around it) taught by Christianity was false, Darwin demonstrated that an intelligent designer was not necessary. This demolished another pillar of Christian teaching and fostered scientific advances.

While Darwin's work is widely accepted and praised throughout much of the world, the hyper-religious United States has had a more difficult time with it. Our ignorance has retarded our progress in some ways, and if this bothers you, I'll suggest one thing you might do today in honor of Darwin: consider supporting the National Center for Science Education.

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