Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday. And though only 39% of Americans believe in evolution, which is a bit baffling [I met someone recently who admitted to not believing in evolution and I was stunned, just didn’t know how to react], today is a day to celebrate a scientist and good man.
He practiced a kind of ideal, dream-like science. He examined the minutiae of nature — shells of barnacles, pistils of flowers — but worked on grand themes. He corresponded with lofty men of learning, but also with farmers and pigeon breeders. He observed, questioned, experimented, constantly testing his ideas.
Could plants from the mainland colonize a newly formed island? If so, they would need a way to get there. Could they survive in the ocean? To find out, he immersed seeds in salt water for weeks, then planted them to see how many could sprout. He reported, for example, that “an asparagus plant with ripe berries floated for 23 days, when dried it floated for 85 days, and the seeds afterwards germinated.” The Atlantic current moved at 33 nautical miles a day; he figured that would take a seed more than 1,300 miles in 42 days. Yes, seeds could travel by sea.
He published important work on subjects as diverse as the biology of carnivorous plants, barnacles, earthworms and the formation of coral reefs. He wrote a travelogue, “The Voyage of the Beagle,” that was an immediate best seller and remains a classic of its kind. And as if that was not enough, he discovered two major forces in evolution — natural selection and sexual selection — and wrote three radical scientific masterpieces, “On the Origin of Species” (1859), “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871) and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872).
The “Origin,” of course, is what he is best known for. This volume, colossal in scope yet minutely detailed, laid the foundations of modern biology. Here, Darwin presented extensive and compelling evidence that all living beings — including humans — have evolved from a common ancestor, and that natural selection is the chief force driving evolutionary change. Sexual selection, he argued, was an additional force, responsible for spectacular features like the tail feathers of peacocks that are useless for (or even detrimental to) survival but essential for seduction.
There are a ton of events and celebrations taking place today. The official celebration website lists 281 events in 31 nations, including more than 170 in the USA. Events range from “Evolutionpalooza!” at the San Francisco Main Branch Public Library to an all-day reading of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (its 150th anniversary year) at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.