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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Darwin’s 200th reminds us of his relevance

    Today we celebrate the bicentennials of two giants of the 19th century: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The former president’s image lines our wallets and every American first-grader knows his story by heart. However, it is upon the shoulders of the latter giant thatsits the entirety of modern biology lies.

    The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said “”nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,”” and certainly nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of Darwin, a man who managed to shake the understanding of ourselves, our history, our future, life itself and the mind of God Almighty.

    Darwin’s theories were devastating to the intellectual, religious and social communities of his time. Removing Man from his perch just below the angels, having been instantaneously sculpted by God in his own image to rule the Creation. Rather, Darwin’s idea implies that Man, alongside the rest of the Creation, evolved from the humblest of beginnings.

    Darwin’s theories are difficult to swallow (that is if you’re the type who views your place in the universe as anything more than miniscule) and so, he remains highly misunderstood, making Darwin as infamous as he is famous. Some misunderstandings led world leaders to defend genocides and others to portray our Chuck D. as a public enemy.

    Maybe the ugliest misinterpretation of Darwin’s work resulted in programs of forced sterilization known as eugenics. This particular bastardization of Darwiniana was dreamt up by the American philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer named his philosophy Social Darwinism, a fact that probably makes Darwin turn in his grave!

    Hopefully Darwin’s 200th will bring with it a new awareness of what Darwin was really all about. We’re on the right track already! Last summer the Church of England issued a very belated apology to Mr. Darwin statingthey are “”sorry for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you as well.”” It’s a shame they waited 127 years after Darwin’s death before apologizing, as it would most likely have brought him some peace of mind.

    After all, Darwin was not an agitator by nature. The social upheaval that his theory weighed heavy upon Darwin. Some historians speculate that this inner turmoil may have contributed to an undiagnosed illness that plagued Darwin during his later years. So, though many religious leaders would have you believe that Darwin was an apostle of Satan working to undermine faith, it is evident that Darwin’s theory was not devised in such a manner, but instead has served to illuminate the mechanics of natural history.

    For those of us who have devoted ourselves to the study of biology, Darwin is a role model. He was meticulously careful that his facts and evidence were in order, even waiting two decades before publishing his magnum opus “”On the Origin of Species”” (reluctantly, at that). As an amateur naturalist, his perspective was fresh and novel, often steering clear of the established Victorian way of scientific thought.

    He was humble, willing to take the advice and input of his colleagues. His scope was exhaustively broad, taking as much an interest in barnacles and beetles as in the mechanisms of biological evolution. Finally, his contributions to modern thought are of the magnitude scientists can only dream of. How euphoric that “”Eureka!”” moment must have felt when all the pieces clicked together and Darwin realized that Natural Selection was the means by which all life had descended from a common ancestor.

    Scientists are not too keen on hero worship, though humans as a whole are. So, it is a constant struggle not to distort Darwin into a godlike figure. Evolutionary biologists must always keep a cool head when discussing his life and accomplishments. Certainly if there are any biologists reading this article, they are wincing at the immaculate image I’ve been attempting to paint of my hero.

    However, every Feb. 12 on Darwin Day it is acceptable to let one’s guard down and relish in the genius of Charles Darwin, as indulgent as it may be. Today the UA department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology will be doing exactly that!

    Come celebrate Darwin’s birthday at the Darwin Day Celebration being held from 2:30 to 5 p.m. in the South Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center. Listen to music and poetry, eat free cake, browse the Darwin-related booths, and learn about the godfather of modern biology.

    -ÿAlexander Walton is a junior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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