February 12th is Charles Darwin’s 204th birthday. I doubt I need to explain who he is, at least in broad terms. As one of the top two or three most famous scientists of all time, we’ve all heard his name, and know he figured something out about the evolution of life on Earth, even if our understanding of the finer details of how evolution works is somewhat hazy.
Back in 2009, the inaugural Darwin Day was established, celebrating the bicentennial of the naturalist’s birth, and the sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of the publication of his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. (You’ve gotta love those Victorian-era titles.)
But what is it, exactly, that Darwin figured out? You’ve heard the phrase, “survival of the fittest”? It was coined by a friend of his, after the fact, though it proved a catchy enough slogan that we still bandy it about today. It also does a decent enough job of summing up how natural selection allows species to change, or even diverge, over time. Given that any population has a variety of different traits, more or less randomly distributed when they don’t have any particular advantages of disadvantages, you can imagine that if some particular trait suddenly becomes important, those individuals possessing it suddenly become more likely to survive and pass on the trait to their descendants.
Proto-camels didn’t purposefully grow humps in response to drought. But those with the largest water-retention capacity did survive longer and produce more offspring, and the same thing happened for generation after generation, until nearly every previously available gene (and fortuitous new mutation) contributing to a larger water larder had become concentrated within the descended population. That’s it in a nut shell, but I’ll bet you’d love to dig deeper.
With Darwin Day coinciding so nearly with Valentine’s, local public events might offer an opportunity to impress your date with your highbrowness. There’s a list of upcoming events (mostly in the United States and Canada) at the official Darwin Day website. Alternately, do a Google search for Darwin Day, plus your area, or else check out local universities, museums, zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums. If you don’t have a specific scheduled event nearby, these are still great places to go in order to learn just a little bit more about life in all its complexity.
If an afternoon looking at either living or extinct plants and animals merely whets your appetite, there’s no need to stop there. The BBC has produced some of the finest nature documentary series of all time. Planet Earth is, of course, excellent (just make sure you get the UK version rather than the American one), but I prefer the older, decades-long Life series, which is comprised of several sub-series, like Life of Mammals, and Life of Birds. Whatever you’re into — bugs, reptiles – David Attenborough is there to narrate it for you. My personal favorite? The Private Life of Plants, which makes heavy use of stop-motion animation to reveal a competitive struggle for survival that unfolds too slowly for us to notice in ordinary circumstances.
Not done yet? Two of the great writers on natural history and the mechanics of evolution, respectively, are the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. For the former, start with one of his essay collections, The Panda’s Thumb, for example, or his book-length examination of the Pre-Cambrian explosion in Wonderful Life. For the latter, begin with The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is great with biological curiosities and conceptual metaphor, while Gould excels at science history. Most readers favor one over the other.
What about Darwin himself? He was a pretty interesting individual in his own right, so if you really want to celebrate his birthday, read his entertaining travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle (in this handsome and free-to-read virtual edition), rather than jumping right into his scientific writings. There have also been several PBS specials on his life and work, and the 2009 biopic, Creation, was unintentionally controversial, when a U.S. distributor nearly couldn’t be found, due to creationist protests. (Even now, in the third millenium, ignorance clings.)
I hope that gives everyone from the long-time science buffs to those looking to dip their toes a place to start. Make it your mission to discover (for yourself) a new species or twelve. As an educator and an environmentalist, I have to believe that knowledge is the first step in appreciating the natural world, and ultimately finding the will to protect it. That aside, the inimitable Dawkins once quoted an unnamed former editor of New Science as saying, “Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can !#%& off. ” Er, ahem, well. I suppose that’s another perspective, also.
Happy Darwin Day everyone!
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