Today marks the 198th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (and also Abraham Lincoln’s), leaving us to reflect upon the man and his work. One year ago today, not knowing it was Darwin Day, I visited the exhibit about the man, gaining a greater appreciation for not only how he changed science, but Charles as a person as well. I must also be honest and say I used the exhibit as an excuse to go to the AMNH to ask the woman who is now my wife to marry me, a Darwin Day to remember if there ever was one.
Whenever I see photos or portraits of Darwin, especially in his later years, I can’t help but notice how the weight of the world seems to be on his shoulders. He didn’t publish his idea of evolution via natural selection for decades as he knew the implications of his ideas, which coupled with Charles’ propensity for overworking himself and various ailments, no doubt resulted in the world-weary figure often depicted on so many book covers. For my own part, I not only admire Darwin for his abilities as a naturalist, but while looking over his journals and personal affects last year I felt something of an understanding for the man. While I will likely never put forth ideas as revolutionary or important as Darwin’s, I could empathize with his struggle between evolution and religion, as well as what he described as “a fever for the tropics” in his youth. During a time when it would have been easy to keep his ideas secret, he put them forward to be faced by other scientists whom he had deep respect for, the driving mechanism for evolution finally unveiled. It is important to note that I do not agree with everything Darwin said (some of his writings reflect Victorian-era racial bias to an extent, and his ideas on genetics have long been disproved), but even though the “tempo and mode” of evolution are still hotly debated, natural selection still remains at the core of evolution, as undeniable as it ever has been.
So what are you going to do for Darwin Day? You could see a showing of Flock of Dodos, visit a great museum, read about Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, contribute to reconstructing the famous ship that took Darwin around the world, or (if you’re an undergraduate student) contribute to a blog about evolution. Whatever you choose to do, I hope you’re as proud to be one of the “endless forms most beautiful” that evolution has produced.