Happy Darwin Day

darwin-2.jpg 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.

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30 Responses to Happy Darwin Day

  1. Gordon says:

    Amazingly insightful, and wonderfully written prose. I find it awe inspiring how such a simple idea can be so deeply connected to the very essence of humanity, and the writing of this post just helps to exemplify this beautiful bond.

  2. John says:

    Einstein Day = Pi Day (3.14)

  3. Sili says:

    Happy Monkey!

    “Ten score and … well, naught years ago, this day, …”

  4. Brando says:

    Excellent write up! Brief, yet elegant. And to celebrate Darwin today, I am wearing my “Viva La Evolucion” t-shirt 🙂

  5. Nice to hear a physicist rating Darwin so highly. Rutherford was wrong about the stamp collecting. Or perhaps he wasn’t…
    http://darwin.gruts.com/weblog/archive/2009/02/12d/ 😉

    Happy Darwin Day.

  6. Mark Jackson says:

    I am still confused why so many religious zealots insist that “God made man in His image”, which they claim somehow disproves the Darwinian theory that we are descended from monkeys; perhaps God looks like a monkey?

  7. WritinginCT says:

    Very thoughtful piece! And the accompanying artwork is just awesome! It’s sad in a way that Darwin himself can’t see what amazing things his theories led to or the throngs of people he inspired to study the natural world.

  8. casey jane says:

    Doesn’t all revolutionary science happen in the face of something, usually societal constraints or scientific conventions? Darwin happened to be operating under a sweeping societal constraint called religion whereas Einstein and Newton were working under rigid conventions within the scientific community. I think all involved represent a triumph of the human spirit equally–constraints, whether widespread or concentrated within a community, can be equally as daunting and creative discovery equally as revolutionary. Its all relative.

    Of course, in terms of the triumph of reason-based thinking in society, i think you are right–Darwin’s theory of natural selection had a greater effect.

  9. changcho says:

    Well said. Happy Darwin Day!

  10. James says:

    Happy Birthday Darwin!

    150 years since the elucidation of natural selection and it’s still annoying the religious nutters!

    Here’s to another 150!

  11. Larry says:

    Can Darwinism explain away the historical fact that a man named Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Son of God, rose form the dead after 3 days? Where in the evelutionary process did man get his sense of spiritual things? I find there is a lot of things Darwinism and “science” can not explane.

    Happy Darwin Day

  12. rww says:

    That’s “de-plane”.

  13. Pope Maledict XVI says:

    “Can Darwinism explain away the historical fact that a man named Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Son of God, rose form the dead after 3 days?”

    No. But it can explain why you think that this is a “fact”.

  14. pfc says:

    Thank you Sean! This is why I’m a regular visitor; you’re a wonderfully articulate writer who is able to communicate not just the discoveries, the theories, and the process of science (as interesting as that is) but also why it’s something to be proud of, and to celebrate.

  15. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Nice post!

    I sometimes wonder why evolution scares folks more than quantum mechanics. In a classical universe, even if there’s evolution, it can still, in principle, unfold according to a set plan. In a quantum universe, that there can even be a plan is unclear. What’s more heretical, that destiny was set for us further in the past, or that there is none?

  16. Hiranya says:

    Great post!

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  18. Neal J. King says:

    Sean,

    I see you’re still trying to catch up with the other Sean Carroll. But he’s still ahead: Now he’s been on NPR with a Darwin-related gig.

  19. piscator says:

    >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 >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.

    Perhaps one reason many people are reluctant to accept natural selection is that what they are presented with is not the science but instead an ideology piggybacking on and distorting the science. It doesn’t matter whether we want to be special or not. On any rational grounds we are special, being the only species to argue the point. Darwin was a seriously great scientist, but he isn’t great because of dodgy meta-conclusions that, bluntly, are in straight denial of the facts. That we are special – and anything that may involve – has no contradiction with either common descent or natural selection; I also have common descent with Edward Witten, but he is still special in a way I am not.

    This attempt to tie Darwin and the science of evolution to a kind of politically liberal atheism is both wrong and dangerous. It’s wrong because it’s false, and I think most people who are professional scientists know at heart (and certainly should know) that it is false. Evolution has no necessary connection to either liberalism or atheism. Anyone who would like to bluff to the contrary can write up their reasons, and try to publish it as a scientific result through usual channels, but I think we know this is not a claim belonging to the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

    It’s dangerous because people who aren’t scientists and who aren’t politically liberal atheists reject the science because they are told that Darwin = atheism, and they have already seen through the latter so they don’t bother with the former. Great science is so much more than a tool to score political points with, and it is a tragedy that so many people miss out on science because Darwin is used for political posturing.

    piscator

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  21. chemicalscum says:

    Low Math said:
    “I sometimes wonder why evolution scares folks more than quantum mechanics. In a classical universe, even if there’s evolution, it can still, in principle, unfold according to a set plan. In a quantum universe, that there can even be a plan is unclear.”

    The reason is they don’t understand QM (come on who does? I know chemistry PhD’s who run away screaming when you try and talk about its relevance to their research) so they don’t think about it, but they think they understand what the Theory of Evolution is when they don’t.

  22. Eugenie says:

    But wheres all the madlove for number one son Leonard Darwin, cousin Galton and America’s own Charles Davenport?
    http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/maybe-its-a-virus/
    http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/2008_01_01_archive.html#6051001262780259118
    http://www.echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/2008_04_01_archive.html
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/04/bioethicist_art_caplan_understands.php [ N.B. scroll down to Colugo’s comments-note the paucity of the response]
    Still all things considered it’s great to see you reading Nietzsche..read enough of him & you too will break down in appalled laughter when you read the words “Ethical Naturalism”

  23. Benjamin says:

    Darwin Day was alive and in full cheer here at Harvard!

  24. Martin E. says:

    “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”
    Great statement! This attitude is one of the steps on my expansion of Dawkins’ “degrees of (un-)religion” scale. It’s the “Jack Sparrow” approach [up to you to realize why],or, to give it a proper name, “scitheism”.