Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day

Hello to all. After a seven month absence I have returned. I'd like to explain my absence with a tale of derring-do, of frontiers crossed and mountains scaled and disasters averted, of femmes fatale and gangsters and wild ambulance rides and desperate last stands, but the honest truth is that I've just been busy with ordinary life. Sigh.

Today is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth. Happy 200th birthday to him! (It's also Abraham Lincoln's 200th.)

It's astounding that, in the year 2009, more than one in two people in the USA don't accept the reality of biological evolution. This is the cause of, and is caused by, the politicisation of biology by religious fundamentalists: evolution has been, for well over half a century, a convenient whipping boy to rally the troops. Opposition to a scientific theory has become a good defining characteristic of a certain type of fundamentalist. It's relatively safe and easy too: it doesn't require you give up your DVD player or plasma TV, like the Amish do, or avoid medical treatment like followers of so-called "Christian Science" do.

While Darwin's contributions to biology are eminently worthy of respect and even celebration, I don't think the plans for Darwin Day are entirely innocent. After all, there's little or no serious movement towards celebrating Sir Isaac Newton's birthday (25th December), or Maxwell's, or Einstein's, or any other noted scientist. I think that there is a little bit of cocking a snook at the Fundamentalists here. They've spent decades demonising Darwin, and I'm sure a lot of people (myself included) wouldn't be too unhappy to see the fundies squirm over Darwin Day. But I think it is important to remember that Darwin never sought controversy, and although he became an atheist himself, he wasn't a militant one. He never begrudged his wife Emma's faith, and he deliberately held off publishing his theory as long as possible because of his concerns that it would upset people.

So, for Darwin Day, some links on why Darwin is important.

From the Guardian:

There can be no such equivocation in the week of a survey which showed that only around half of all Britons accept that Darwin's theory of evolution is either true or probably true. In a democracy, citizens should respect each other's beliefs; and citizens have a right to express their beliefs. But in a democracy, a newspaper has an obligation to what is right. The truth is that Darwin's reasoning has in the last 150 years been supported overwhelmingly by discoveries in biology, geology, medicine and space science. The details will keep scientists arguing for another 200 years, but the big picture has not changed. All life is linked by common ancestry, including human life. The shameful lesson of this 200th anniversary of his birth is that Darwin's contemporaries understood more clearly than many modern Britons.

Jerry Coyne on why Darwin is still important, 150 years after Origin Of Species:

Darwin had far more influence on modern evolutionary research than Newton has on work in modern physics. In fact, in no other area of science has a research program suggested by one person lasted for a century and a half. ...

But some biologists, chafing in their Darwinian straitjacket, periodically announce new worldviews that, they claim, will overturn our view of evolution, or at least force its drastic revision. During my career I have heard this said about punctuated equilibrium, molecular drive, the idea of symbiosis as an evolutionary force, evo-devo, and the notion that evolution is driven by the self-organization of molecules. Some of these ideas are worthwhile, others simply silly; but none do more than add a room or two to the Darwinian manse. Often declared dead, Darwinism still refuses to lie down.

(A small aside: Richard Dawkins has a glowing review of Coyne's book Why Evolution Is True. One for the shopping list, methinks.)

And Darwin fan-grrl Soupytwist has written a short, sweet and kick-arse post about her attitude to Darwin and his theory:

It's about seeing the world for what it is, not for what we might percieve it to be, and seeing the actual underlying processes underneath: processes at once so simple and so far-reaching that they boggle the mind.

I mean, "things that survive are the ones who get to pass on attributes to the next generation" seems pretty obvious, really. But as simple as that idea is, it really wasn't obvious, not in the face of a world where basically everybody thought species were created immutable, and absolutely not before we knew there was definitely such a thing as DNA which might provide the actual mechanics of the whole thing.

On a related note, if anybody tries to tell you that Darwin recanted his theory on his deathbed and returned to Christianity, don't be fooled. It simply isn't true.

UPDATE: thanks to Mrs Impala for her l33t editing and proof-reading skills, and the link to Soupytwist.