A billboard honoring the memory of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary science, has appeared along Highway 50 on Orchard Mesa above the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Colo. The billboard space was purchased by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born 200 years ago on Feb. 12, 1809.
Charles Darwin would no doubt be surprised to learn that, 127 years after his death, people around the world will be celebrating his 200th birthday on Thursday.
Biology’s “reluctant revolutionary,” as English historian James Moore calls him, was a quiet man and frequently ill. But there will be nothing low-key about “Darwin Day,” the anniversary of the English naturalist’s Feb. 12, 1809, birth.
The official celebration Web site (darwinday.org) lists 281 events in 31 nations, including more than 170 in the United States. Events range from “Evolutionpalooza!” at the San Francisco Main Branch Public Library to an all-day reading of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (its 150th anniversary year) at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.
“Darwin was it,” says paleontologist Robert Carroll of McGill University in Montreal, who is giving a public talk at the university’s Redpath Museum.
Modern biology begins with Darwin, who died in 1882 at 73, and his recognition that every living species evolved from a shared single-cell ancestor formed in Earth’s earliest days, Carroll says. “Particularly because of the anti-evolution reactions going on despite the science, we have to celebrate this anniversary.”
So, part birthday bash, part thumb-in-the-eye to creationists, part opportunity for publishers rolling out Darwin books like sausages — who and what are evolution’s fans celebrating?
“Certainly without Darwin, we would have had (discoveries about) evolution, but we wouldn’t have had natural selection,” says science historian Peter Bowler of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Darwin proposed in 1859 that natural selection — “preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious,” in his words — was the inherited mechanism of evolution, how living things endured by hanging onto the traits that helped them survive and eventually losing those that didn’t.
Upending the widespread belief among biologists that all species arose separately, Darwin’s central argument in his landmark 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” was this: “It inevitably follows, that as new species in the course of time are formed through natural selection, others will become rarer and rarer, and finally extinct.”
The talented Mr. Darwin
Darwin didn’t make these pronouncements on a whim. At 22, he set out as a gentleman explorer aboard HMS Beagle, chartered to survey the coasts of South American and Pacific isles on a planned two-year voyage that lasted almost five years. Famously, the trip took Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, where he noted the differences between birds and tortoises on the islands.
On returning, Darwin made his name as a geologist in the Victorian scientific establishment.
His observations of how Earth’s changing geological past is shown in rocks, a revelation of the era, helped make clear to him the changing environmental conditions that might push species to evolve.
Publication in 1839 of his account of his travels, “The Voyage of the Beagle,” made Darwin famous at age 29.
In that year, Darwin first privately drew his now-familiar “tree of life” diagram, showing the ancestral links between 24 living and four extinct species groups.
“No one had previously seen (species) relationships as treelike and therefore explicitly genealogical,” writes the science historian Keith Thomson in “The Young Charles Darwin” (Yale University Press, $28), out Thursday.
For two decades, Darwin pondered the differences between the island species and continental ones in the specimens packed away and described in his notes, as he quietly raised a family of 10 children (three died in childhood). He bred birds to test his view of natural selection.
The religious climate of Darwin’s day favored “special creation,” the belief that all species, from mayflies to manatees to mankind, were created separately by a higher power.
Historians agree that Darwin feared the controversy that would attach to his name with the public release of this idea (“It is like confessing a murder,” he wrote to the botanist John Dalton Hooker.)
What finally prodded him to publish his heretical ideas was his 1858 reception of a manuscript from the naturalist Alfred Wallace, who had come to the same conclusions about natural selection.
Both scientists’ ideas were unveiled to a scientific gathering in London, with Darwin expanding on his findings a year later in “On the Origin of Species.”
Darwin’s ideas are often presented as adversarial to the concepts of creationism — the belief that life began exactly as is described in the Bible — and intelligent design, the belief that life’s evolution is the design of a higher power.
Often forgotten, in the 1800s and now, is that “Darwinism” is simply the idea of a common ancestor for all living things, with natural selection thrown in as a driver of evolution, says science philosopher Michael Ruse of Florida State University.
The controversial Mr. Darwin
“Origin” quickly sold out, sparking an 1860 debate at England’s Oxford University that presaged many of the arguments over evolution heard today. At that debate, the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce supposedly asked one of Darwin’s supporters, the biologist Thomas Huxley, whether his grandmother or grandfather’s side of his family was descended from monkeys
In the United States, the debate turned similarly acrimonious with the 1927 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” in which Tennessee prosecuted schoolteacher John Scopes for teaching evolution.
Scopes lost, but the scorn on the creationist prosecutor, Williams Jennings Bryan, by pundits such as The Baltimore Sun’s H.L. Mencken, remained the wider public image of the case, immortalized in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind.”
Public debate over evolution has bounced from the statehouse to the schoolhouse to the courthouse since the Scopes trial. A CBS News poll last year found 56 percent of respondents would favor “teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools,” with 36 percent opposed.
Courts in 1968, 1987 and 2005 have found efforts to teach creationism and intelligent design to be an unconstitutional breach of the separation between church and state. Public debates over the teaching of evolution surfaced in January in Texas and Louisiana; bills critical of teaching evolution were introduced this month in the Iowa and New Mexico legislatures.
“We’re not out to bash Darwin, he wasn’t a God-hater out to destroy Christianity,” says Tommy Mitchell of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., who will speak there on Darwin’s life Thursday. “We would argue his observations hang on a bad starting point. He just never had a biblical worldview and that led him to his conclusions.”
On the other hand, Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University, author of “God After Darwin: A Theory of Evolution,” notes that the Vatican accepts evolution. Evolution fits comfortably with religious belief, he says, unless you view the Bible as a “literal source of scientific or technical information.”
“Evolution is really kind of an anomaly in terms of the public view of science in the United States,” says political scientist Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Surveys show the public supports science broadly, “and even the notion of animals evolving gets people less upset. It is really the notion of people evolving that triggers a negative reaction.”
Miller and colleagues published a 2006 survey in Science, for example, finding that 62 percent of U.S. respondents agreed: “Human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life.”
The prodigious Mr. Darwin
“Today we live in a second golden age of evolution,” says University of Wisconsin biologist Sean Carroll, author of “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species,” also out Thursday. The 1953 explanation of how DNA encodes the genes inside our cells has led to an explosion of discoveries in evolution today, such as:
• “Horizontal” gene swapping among microbes and through viruses into larger creatures and plants.
• Intact “tool kits” of genes, such as the basic animal body plan from millions of years ago.
• The guiding role of gene expression, how often genes are turned on and off, in shaping the growth of living things.
Understanding DNA and genomes (genetic maps) means scientists will one day “understand the full scope of the evolutionary process at its deepest fundamental level,” Carroll says.
THE ORIGINS OF DARWIN
• Feb. 12, 1809: Charles Robert Darwin is born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England.
• Dec. 27, 1831: Darwin set out on the HMS Beagle, where he was engaged as a naturalist. Over the next few years he would travel to such places as Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, the Falkland Islands, Peru and Tahiti, sending plant, animal and fossil specimens back to England.
• Oct. 2, 1836: The HMS Beagle arrives back in England.
• Jan. 4, 1837: Darwin speaks before the Royal Geological Society in London, presenting his findings that animals in South America had adapted as land masses rose over eons.
• Jan. 29, 1839: Darwin marries his cousin, Emma Wedgwood.
• August, 1839: Darwin’s journal of his voyage aboard the Beagle is published and sells well.
• July 1, 1858: Darwin goes public with his views on the evolution of species at a meeting of the Linnean Society, a gathering of prominent naturalists.
• Nov. 22, 1859: “On the Origin of Species” is published and becomes an immediate success.
• March, 1871: Darwin’s book on human origins called “The Descent of Man” is published.
• April 19, 1882: Darwin, who had been chronically ill for most of his adult life, dies. He is buried at Westminster Abbey, not far from the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton.
ON THE WEB
The official celebration Web site: darwinday.org