12 February 2013

Enjoy Darwin Day!

Today marks the 204th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin.  In the 74,510 days since Darwin's birth, our growing understanding of life has given us remarkable ways to view our place in the universe.  One aspect of that understanding that particularly fascinates me is our kinship with all living creatures.  What an exciting way to think about the natural world!

The scientific pursuit of truth involves the acquisition of data and evidence to support propositions.  We need not "believe" a scientific proposition.  If data and evidence don't exist to support a given proposition, that proposition won't be accepted as a description of nature.  Scientists go where the evidence takes us, and we do not fear overturning previously-held ideas.  We continually try to falsify claims; failure to do so for a particular claim leads us to the conclusion that that claim glimpses a truth in nature.  We accept what we find whether we like the results or not.  Removing confirmation bias and solipsism is not always easy, but good science requires it.  Galileo Galilei supposedly said "eppur si muove" prior to the Inquisition.  Most likely apocryphal, "and yet it moves," in reference to the Earth's motion around the sun, the remark is now used to get the point across that our beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to data and evidence acquired through scientific inquiry.

The evidence to support evolution is overwhelming.  It does not require "belief," even though people are often asked if they "believe" in evolution.  Denying evolution is tantamount to denying, for example, what we know about gravity.  A Gallup Poll published last year (click here for the story) reveals an embarrassing low percentage of US citizens who accept the scientific claims associated with evolution.  A 2006 article in Science showed public acceptance of evolution in the US to be next to last among the 34 countries surveyed (click here for the country chart).  The richest country in human history with the ability to provide public education to its citizens should be chagrined by its lack of scientific literacy, especially given that On the Origin of Species was published almost 154 years ago.

The good news is that days like today have meaning.  We celebrate the ideas that revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. With the ever-increasing advance of technology and the spread of information, we should be hopeful that scientific literacy will improve.  Darwin Day helps in this effort.  People like Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey help, too.  A physicist, Holt led the effort to have today recognized as Darwin Day in the US.  Kudos to Dr Holt!

If you know very little about Darwin's ideas, there are many easy-to-read books out there.  I love The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins (click here to get it).  Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish (click here to get it) is also a wonderful read with a concluding chapter that you'll want to read twice (at least!).  Never feel ashamed if you are ignorant about something.  Knowing everything would mean never being able to experience the thrill of learning.

Have a great Darwin Day!

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