free debate

February 12, 2010

Darwin Day

Today, February 12, marks the 201th birthday of Charles Darwin. His landmark work, On the Origin of Species, revolutionized biology, and the scientific view of how the diversity of life that exists today came into being. Whether dealing with biology, genetics, paleontology, psychology, or even philosophy, the idea of evolution via natural selection comes into play.
Natural selection is an elegantly simple idea: All populations have some amount of variation in it. Most of these differences are neutral; some are harmful; other provide an advantage. Neutral variation comes and goes. Harmful variations die out. Beneficial variations become more common. Over time, these variations add up, causing significant changes and eventually fundamentally changing a species. It makes a lot of logical sense. It is a common legend that when Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin and self-proclaimed "Darwin's bulldog," first read it, he asked how he didn't see it first, it seemed so clear and obvious. It is this clarity and the thoughtfulness Darwin put into The Origin of Species that has allowed the theory to remain with relatively minor revision through the past 150 years.

Because of Origin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin is now a name found throughout science. Another interesting note on him is that he wasn't the top of his class. In fact, at university, he was a little below the average. But he had a dogged persistence that shows through his drafts of Origin. Once he hit on that idea, which seemed so simple, he spend nearly 30 years perfecting it and finding examples, so as to make it as clear to anyone else as it was to him. He's a great example of how really anyone can make a big contribution to science, without being the valedictorian or the nerd at school. Science is great because, in its simplest form, it only requires a question, an open mind, and a determination to learn how the world works.

More on Darwin Day.
Read Darwin's publications.