12 February 2012

Darwin Day

As I lick my wounds from seeing my beloved Vanderbilt Commodores fall to #1-ranked Kentucky last night, I reflect on the fact that on this day 203 years ago, Charles Darwin was born.  Think about how much more human beings know about how our species evolved compared to what we knew two centuries ago.  If you have only a superficial understanding of Darwin's contributions, please allow yourself to do a little reading.  If reading a book published in 1859 (On the Origin of Species) is not your cup of tea, try, for example, The Greatest Show on Earth:  The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins.  Read about the 1860 evolution debates at Oxford, which featured Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce (among others) going toe to toe.

Darwin's work remains one of the greatest contributions to not only science, but to humanity.  Evolution is not something one must "believe" or "take on faith."  The evidence for evolution is immense, and only after the countless failed efforts to falsify Darwin's theories did the scientific community begin to accept them as real descriptions of the natural world.  That is what we do in science.  We make claims based on data and evidence, and perhaps extrapolate those claims to more far-reaching theories.  Those theories are then put to the test over and over again by researchers all over the world.  A good scientific claim must be falsifiable, meaning that if evidence is found to refute that claim, and the scientific community forms a consensus that the evidence found does indeed refute the claim, the claim is tossed out.  We may not like being wrong, but we in science are not afraid of being wrong.  That is how we learn!

I find it fascinating that Abraham Lincoln was born on the exact same day as Darwin.  Deserving of the moniker, "The Great Emancipator," one could certainly argue that Lincoln was our greatest president.  Some have suggested that Lincoln was actually not the greatest emancipator born on 12 February 1809!  When one considers what Darwin gave science and humanity the world over, such a suggestion is not too far-fetched.

On a personal note, my paternal grandfather was born on 12 February 1922, which was 90 years ago today.  He died in 1994, just five days after I turned 24.  He always seemed tickled that he shared Lincoln's birthday.  Because my scientific career was only just starting near the end of his life, and because my understanding and appreciation of Darwin's work came only in my mid 20s, I never talked to him about the fact that he also shared Darwin's birthday.  I'm not sure if he knew that he did.

Tonight, I'll raise a pint to Darwin, Lincoln, and my grandfather.  I learned a great deal from all three of them.

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