Today is Darwin Day, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. If you prefer your classics in modern Web 2.0 form, check out John Whitfield’s Blogging the Origin, or Discover‘s own special coverage.
Darwin Day has a different tenor than Newton Day or Einstein Day would have. The theory of natural selection has an impact on our self-image as human beings in a way that classical mechanics or relativity simply do not. Every great scientist teaches us something about how the world works, but evolution also teaches us something about who we are. (Or, more accurately, is an important part of a wide-ranging set of ideas that teach us something about who we are.) Namely, that we human beings are not separate from the world. We are part of it, subject to the same laws, originating from the same processes, not singled out for some special purpose among the multitude of amazing events within our far-flung universe.
Too bad for Darwin. It’s nearly impossible to recognize and appreciate his scientific genius without also grappling one way or another with the sad reality that so many people are reluctant to accept the truth of natural selection. We are messy biological creatures, not perfect reasoning machines, and it’s too tempting to view the workings of the world through a lens of our personal preferences. (Ironically, the reason why we are messy biological creatures rather than perfect reasoning machines is that we got to where we are through an unpredictable and historically contingent set of evolutionary steps, rather than being designed from scratch.) We want to be special, we don’t want to be an accident, and in the face of overwhelming evidence we too often simply refuse to accept any other possibility.
But also, good for Darwin. Because we are part of the universe, every scientific discovery helps us understand who we are; how species evolve is simply a discovery where the connection is all too obvious. Darwin is a scientific hero both for the brilliance of his theory (not to mention his observations as a naturalist), but also for the symbolic role of evolution as a triumph of reality over wishful thinking. If the evidence had indicated that we were designed as part of some Great Plan, the scientifically respectable thing to do would have been to accept that and try to understand it as well as we could. Good science is often disturbing, because the things we don’t yet understand about the world are (pretty much by definition) the things that are difficult and surprising. But reality always wins out.
So Darwin represents, in a way that even Newton and Einstein and others do not, a triumph of the true human spirit — the drive to get things right and come to terms with how the world really works, regardless of how it all makes us feel in the end. Once we buy into that spirit and appreciate the thrill of honest discovery, of course, we find that it makes us feel pretty good.