The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, February 12, 2010

Charles Darwin's Birthday

For those who are unaware, today is Charles Darwin's 201st birthday. Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in England (really, what is it with English place-names sounding as if they had been developed by Smurfs), and trained early on to become a doctor...which didn't go over so well. In the end, he took an interest in taxidermy, and then natural history, which led (along with an ocean voyage) to him eventually coming upon the information that formed the basis for the theory* of descent with modification (or, as we call it today, evolution).

The irony of this is that in the United states today, Darwin is demonized by a good many people. I have heard people say in all seriousness that Darwin made a pact with Satan, that he was a fool manipulated by an evil atheist conspiracy, that he was a part of an evil atheist conspiracy, that he was a fool who simply came to the wrong conclusion and that "evil atheistic scientists" were happy to accept his conclusion as dogma because it let them get rid of God, etc. etc.

The simple facts of the case are as follows: Darwin gathered information carefully over decades, and thought through his results carefully. The basic concept of evolution was not a new one in Darwin's day, but nobody had yet worked out a realistic mechanism by which it could happen, and as such it remained an interesting but untested hypothesis. Darwin's theory did what every good scientific theory should - it suggested a variety of test criteria and predicted future discoveries which have since come to pass. Although the idea was rightfully controversial in its early days, it has so consistently been supported by new discoveries for the past century and a half (the discovery of DNA itself was one of the major supporting pieces of information that filled in the theoretical gaps) that there is no real scientific controversy today**.

The controversy is entirely a media and social one, not a scientific one. And the controversy is, not surprisingly, due almost entirely to misinformation. When people tell me that they don't accept evolution, I try to ask them to describe evolution to me. On those occasions when they are willing to, they invariably say something such as "humans came from monkeys" or "everything came out of slime" or they'll bring in something from cosmology (which is not biology) such as the Big Bang, and so on. Of course, all of these sorts of claims show a gross misunderstanding of what evolution is. I have yet to have a single denier of it give me a description of evolution that even vaguely resembles the real thing.

The reality is that the theory of evolution forms the base of modern biology. If you live in the western world and benefit from things like medical care, which is steeped in biology, then you owe your healthy and long life at least in part to Charles Darwin's work. To demonize him while at the same time hoping to make use of modern medicine is the height of hypocrisy.

So, reflect on the fact that today is the birthday of a scientist who literally changed the world through his work. If you enjoy your lifestyle, you owe him a debt of gratitude.

*For those who claim that evolution is "just a theory", go here so that you'll stop sounding like an idiot when you dismiss scientific theories.

**Leaving aside the very small number of scientists (I think there's a total of about five) who cling to the failed hypothesis of "intelligent design" (and yes, contrary to what Ben Stein would have you believe, it's a hypothesis that has been tested, and has failed right out the starting gate because it is based entirely upon shaky assumptions), there are legitimate, responsible scientists who don't necessarily doubt the theory of evolution by descent with modification, but find it insufficient in certain areas. Whether their work will simply require the modification and tweaking of the theory, as has been routinely happening, or will introduce new and more interesting underlying principles to the development of life has yet to be seen. However, it's interesting stuff, but it seems to no more represent a threat to the theory of evolution than the discovery of quantum physics is a threat to classical gravity theory in physics. In other words, evolution is well-accepted int he scientific community, where it forms the bedrock of biology.

No comments: