Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

On this day in 1809 in the town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, a man was born who's name would become synonymous with the diversification of life.  Described as a "gentleman naturalist" by his friend and botanist, John Stevens Henslow, Charles Darwin would become one of the most celebrated scientists in history.  On this day, 203 years later, we celebrate the life of a man who's curiosity and passion for the natural world allowed humanity to understand its connection to every other organism that we share this planet with.

His insights gave us the first scientifically rigorous explanation for the diversification of species.  While his concept of evolution through natural selection has seen many changes throughout the years as new data has been incorporated, the core tenants of his idea are still essential to all of biology.

In fact, one cannot even hope to understand any part of biology without viewing it through the lens of evolution.  To do so otherwise would be like trying to understand cosmology without taking gravity into account.  And while his revelation has changed the very way we see ourselves and all life, his young self would never have guessed what he would one day accomplish

He started out confused about his future and eventually found himself enrolled in a theological school as a last resort.  It was here, oddly enough, that he began his in depth exploration of the natural world.  It was through the writings and his friendships with various 'natural theologians', those that believed that through the study of the natural world one could understand the mind of god, that he got a varied training in the sciences and his recommendation for a spot on the H.M.S. Beagle.

He began the trip with the belief that the Bible was a true account and quoted it frequently.  But as his work during the voyage continued, he quickly began to have doubts.  He noticed that many of the fossils of mammals he unearthed in South America resembled those of living organisms.  He started to see connections between organisms all around him.  He saw geological evidence for a changing world that acted through entirly natural processes.

He could not fathom how a deity would allow for the extinction of entire species, nor why those extinct species and living ones would share so many common traits.  As he continued his sampling of the natural world and his eventual study of those samples over many years, he could not doubt the connections between the various animal species around him.  By the time he returned from his voyage, he was openly critical of the bible that he once held so dear and began asking why Christianity would hold a special place in the pantheon of religions.

The more questions he asked and studied, the more he doubted.  By the time of his father's death, he had abandoned religion entirely.  Though he still would attend a Unitarian church with his wife, Emma, for her sake.  He loved her immensely and knew that she did not share his lack of belief.  Though many of his children did inherit their father's curious nature and love of science, three of which would go on to become members of the Royal Society, one of the most prestigious scientific groups of the time.

Besides his great insights, Charles Darwin was also remembered for his talent as a writer.  Even while still away exploring the world, he gained notoriety within both scientific and popular circles.  His notes and journal entries became so well known that his journal, originally a part of a collection of books revolving around the second voyage of the Beagle, had to be published independently to meet public demands.  Everything he wrote sold astonishingly well, from his On the Origin of Species to his final work The Formation of Vegtable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

He had a love of the natural world and through it, found inspiration and understanding.  And today, on the aniversary of his birth, we celebrate a life that has forever changed our views on the world and ourselves.

To find out if there are any planned events today in your area, look at those registered through The International Darwin Day Foundation.
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