Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the biologist who proposed the modern theory of evolution and natural selection.

Darwin was a kind, well-rounded, and well-respected human being. He liked kids, was friendly with neighbors and strangers, and was a loving and caring husband. I suspect Darwin would have been righteously indignant of those who vilify him, and that he would have been mortified and angry by those who advanced war and racism in his name.

First and foremost, Darwin was an observer of the natural world. He studied biology via many different methods. He is most famous for his world "cruises" in which he studied the flora and fauna of many remote areas, including the Galapagos Islands. But Darwin also studied fossils and read the work of others. He took many years to digest all of this information and to develop his theory of evolution and natural selection. And he thought long and hard about the implications of his theories, and often struggled with seemingly contradictory information.

For example, Darwin worried quite a bit about the extravagant tails of peacocks. These tails hinder the birds, and should give predators an advantage over the birds; natural selection then says that the birds would lose the tails or be hunted to extinction. But yet, there the feathers are. And gradually Darwin came to realize that peahens were attracted by larger and more extravagant tails. So, the peacocks are in a balance between natural selection disfavoring big tails, and sexual selection favoring big tails. Based on the size of peacock tails, we can tell which is the driving force.

Darwin was truly the Albert Einstein of biology. Many of his ideas were decades ahead of the rest of biology. Some are just now coming into favor. And some of Darwin's ideas were, by modern standards, wacky. He proposed ideas on how animal species are distributed that are just plain wrong, especially once you know about plate tectonics (which Darwin didn't). Darwin didn't know about genes and DNA (how could he have?).

But Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection are now the crucial underpinnings of all modern biology and medicine. Without evolution, we would not understand the emergence of new diseases, or the increasing antibiotic resistance of many bacteria, or the interrelatedness of species in various ecosystems. His theories have been and continue to be rigorously tested by experiment and the scientific method.

So, happy 200th birthday to a scientific genius, a man before his time, and, above all, a good human being.


  1. Well written and useful. Thank you!

  2. Survival of the fittest.

    well if we go by Darwin we must ask the question whether his theory would survive the times when every one is after one single question :
    What was the start??????????????????????????????????????

  3. I think he saw it coming - how his works might influence people. That's why he delayed publishing Origin of the Species.