Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day

There is a fundamental principle in science that evidence is all that matters. As scientists we do not accept ideas simply because of the person proposing them, we evaluate the evidence. Among the anti-science crowd you will often hear the argument that Charles Darwin is held in almost a sacred position. That to deny his ideas is sacrilegious. This is not just false, but also offensive to scientists. And it is destructive the dialogue between the scientific community and the general population.

So when scientists celebrate "Darwin Day" (Darwin's birthday) it must seem to some as if the scientific community is in fact proving the point of the science deniers. Again, this is not the case. Darwin Day is a day to celebrate science, and the process of science. Yes, it is intended as an honor to Darwin, but not for the reasons some would claim. It is NOT to celebrate the birth of the man (as some kind of god). It is NOT to worship him.

Charles Darwin is held in high esteem among scientist for the work he did, more so than for his idea.

Charles Darwin was not the only person to propose the idea of descent with modification. He was not even the first. The reason he is given so much credit and is so well remembered is the evidence he collected and published. Darwin gathered evidence from all over the world (quite a feet in his day). He spent the better part of his life gathering and analyzing data and evidence before publishing his idea. Within the pages of Origin of Species you will find examples domestic dogs, pigeons (wild and domestic), earthworms, beetles, birds of South America, prehistoric fossils from all over the world, and most famously, the island biogeography of the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin published a ground breaking idea, but more importantly he had the research and evidence to back it up. In the 150 years since the publication of Origin of Species we have discovered much about biology, medicine, geology, paleontology, anatomy, and the all the other sciences. Obvious Darwin could not have predicted these advances or used the evidence we now have. But in that time we have discovered nothing to contradict the basic premise of his hypothesis. A hypothesis that is now a valid scientific theory which ties all of biology together.

So it is right that the man's work should be respected as not only one of the most influential and important ideas in the last 200 years, but also as a stellar example of how science is supposed to work.

So today, Feb 12th, 2009. It is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Take some time to read or investigate a little about how evolutionary theory influences our modern world.

Here are some good places to start:

This is and excellent editorial about evolution and the current debate from the Guardian. I would love to see American journalists saying some of these things

Seed compiled a short selection of some ideas that have arisen as a result of Darwin's work

Nature has dedicated its weekly podcast this week to a Darwin theme. Featuring poetry, science, and info about the man himself.

Here is a pdf from the magazine Nature titled "15 Evolutionary Gems". It is well worth a look.

And New Scientist put out a list this month of their top 10 evolution articles

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