One hundred and fifty years ago the Universe was a perfect clockwork mechanism, with humankind as the mainspring around which the intricate machine was built. The heavenly bodies moved according to The Creator’s plan, and all the Earth and the myriad web of life upon it were put here for our benefit. The Universe had design, it had purpose, it had a center.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin changed that Universe. Upon publication of his life’s work, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, humankind was no longer the center of the Universe, and the Universe had lost its purpose, its center. Humans were just another part of nature, just another animal. The year 1859 was a bad year for anthropocentrism.
It is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and he deserves a hearty toast from us all on this occasion. Not because he set modern biology on its current path 80 years before biologists begrudgingly acceded to his insight, but because he brought biology to the masses. At once, biology became both controversial, and exciting. No other single theory in biology has so thoroughly and simultaneously set biologists and laymen alike at each others throats.
No other theory has so thoroughly shifted the ground of the debate over human origins and the place of humans in the Universe.
While the mechanisms and details of evolution will be debated for centuries to come, the basic premise set forth by Charles Darwin, that “descent with modification” and “natural selection” of the most successful offspring are the two bases of evolution, will endure.
In modern biology, the debate still rages over the mechanisms of “descent with modification”. But the idea that natural selection, operating inexorably at many levels, is responsible for ensuring that the most highly fit organisms survive and reproduce, is unquestionable.
So I offer a toast to one of the greatest biologists and thinkers of all time. Happy birthday Charles. Here’s to you.
Link: Darwin Day 2009