Happy Darwin Day!


Today is the famed naturalist’s 205th birthday, and Ian Chant is ready to celebrate:

[Darwin Day] is a day to be thankful for innovative thinkers, brave scientists of all stripes, and yes, evolution in general, because frankly, we take our opposable thumbs for granted 364 days of the year, and respect should be paid. If you’re looking for something to do in your neck of the woods to celebrate among like-minded lovers of evolution, the International Darwin Day Foundation has a guide to events at colleges, libraries and museums around the world that will be celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin in the coming days.

Science-lovers around the world are hosting lectures, discussions, and exotic entertainments such as “phylum feasts” (dinners with a variety of species represented on the menu) in honor of the man. But perhaps the best way to pay tribute is with sober skepticism, like this professor of evolutionary ecology:

I’d be disappointed if this celebration of all things Darwinian began and ended with the great naturalist, because I think a focus on the person tends to undersell the science … The beauty of an idea like natural selection is that it is true, whether or not you choose to believe it. It is true, even if nobody has yet had the idea or written it down. If Darwin hadn’t done so, Alfred Russell Wallace’s version might have swayed the Victorians. Or perhaps a version discovered some 50 years later.

Humanity owes a great debt to Darwin, and the history of science followed the course that it did because of him. But he isn’t the reason for the season; science does not need deities and messiahs. Darwin was merely the guy who figured it all out first.

And what I admire about Darwin is not just his evident human-ness, nor his openness to new ideas, nor his magnificent beard, but his equally skeptical view of religion, which some of his contemporary followers would do well to note:

It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.— You are right about Kingsley. Asa Gray, the eminent botanist, is another case in point— What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

(Illustration: part of a page from Darwin’s notebooks around July 1837 showing his first sketch of an evolutionary tree.)