Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

(this is all Charlie’s fault (just kidding)… – promoted by pfiore8)

Today is the 199th birthday of Charles Darwin and 2008 marks the 149th year anniversary of his book, On the Origin of Species, where he advocated and provided scientific evidence that showed all species of life evolved over time from common ancestry through the process of natural selection.

Today is also a good time to reflect upon what Darwin’s ideas mean to Americans.

Author Susan Jacoby writes about Darwin’s belated American birthday present in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. She observes unlike the rest of the world fewer than half of all Americans accept the fact evolution occurs and is scientifically valid. “The widespread American skepticism about evolution is a phenomenon unique in the developed world, as is the controversy over whether evolution or religious theories of creation should be taught in public school science classes.”

Wired News reports the battle over evolution still is not over. Next week, Florida’s department of education will vote on a new science curriculum. Nine Florida counties have condemned the curriculum because it teaches evolution and are demanding it be “balanced” with creationist theories. Florida’s current science education standard, which doesn’t name evolution, was given a failing grade. Florida science education is failing the future.

Jacoby believes our fellow Americans’ rejection of evolution is because of ignorance. “This knowledge deficit has nothing to do with religion, but it does point to a stunning failure of American public schooling at the elementary and secondary level.” She thinks “keeping religious out of public school science classes is not enough” and we need to adopt a national science curriculum and standards to have a well educated, modern society.

But what does an educated, modern society mean? How can we be surrounded by scientific and technological marvels in the United States, but still be largely or in part a collective of dullards?

In Britain, The Guardian has devoted a section of its website to the upcoming Darwin bicentennial. For the newspaper, Richard Dawkins wrote an essay explaining Why Darwin matters.

Charles Darwin had a big idea, arguably the most powerful idea ever. And like all the best ideas it is beguilingly simple. In fact, it is so staggeringly elementary, so blindingly obvious that although others before him tinkered nearby, nobody thought to look for it in the right place.

Darwin had plenty of other good ideas – for example his ingenious and largely correct theory of how coral reefs form – but it is his big idea of natural selection, published in On the Origin of Species, that gave biology its guiding principle, a governing law that helps the rest make sense. Understanding its cold, beautiful logic is a must…

Here may lie the answer to a nagging puzzle in the history of ideas. After Newton’s brilliant synthesis of physics, why did it take nearly 200 years for Darwin to arrive on the scene? Newton’s achievement seems so much harder! Maybe the answer is that Darwin’s eventual solution to the riddle of life is so apparently facile…

Darwin raises our consciousness to the sinewy power of science to explain the large and complex in terms of the small and simple. In biology we were fooled for centuries into thinking that extravagant complexity in nature needs an extravagantly complex explanation. Darwin triumphantly dispelled that delusion.

Dawkins touches upon a “nagging puzzle in the history of ideas” where Newton’s ‘simple’ idea was not only discovered first, but is also more widely accepted. By understanding and accepting what Newton explains, the physical sciences have flourished and such understanding has led to our society’s advancements in understanding and technological marvels.

And just as understanding Newton is basic to physical sciences, understanding Darwin is basic to biological sciences. America’s failure to both understand and accept what Darwin explains is suffocating our next intellectual and scientific frontier. What physics and chemistry were to the 19th and 20th centuries, genetics and biology are to the 21st century.

By rejecting evolution, Americans are rejecting the future, but the future still will come. What Americans are truly rejecting is the knowledge and tools that we will need to deal with our changing climate and world. When Americans reject evolution, what we are really rejecting is a place in the modern, civilized world.

15 comments

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    • Magnifico on February 12, 2008 at 10:50 pm
      Author

    Also available on Planet Orange.

  1. …we need to adopt a national science curriculum and standards to have a well educated, modern society.

    brings back memories of the big push for science education during the space race — after the Russians launched Sputnik, the US wanted to catch up.

    Maybe we need another push like that.

    Thanks for this great essay, Magnifico.

    • nocatz on February 12, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    give some hits to at least two Evo-blogs

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyn

    http://pandasthumb.org/

    lotsa good links too.

  2. http://tinyurl.com/2xbp48

    • pfiore8 on February 13, 2008 at 4:48 am

    thanks caveman!

  3. How do I change my password to something I can remember???

  4. hope for the future…just not much assurance that we will be a part of it.

  5. your first link (the collected works) has been part of my dkos blogroll for about a year :}

  6. When we were at Yearly Kos we went to the Field Museum to see their Darwin exhibit.  It ran from June 15, 2007 – January 1, 2008.  It was a great exhibit.  

    If you want to get a sense of what it was like, here are some links:

    http://jurnal-international.ar

    http://www.fieldmuseum.org/dar

    Happy Birthday Charlie!

  7. …the evolution of consciousness, whether residents in the U.S. recognize that or not:

    Yet how can we fail to perceive in that patient and continuous amassing of human acquirements the methods and therefore the very stamp of Life itself — Life which is irreversible, its inevitability born of the improbable, its consistency of fragility. …

    Mankind, as we find it in its present state and present functioning, is organically inseperable from that which has been slowly added to it, and which is propagated through education.

                          Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

    And yes, it is very sad how the US has denigrated and squandered education as if it were irrelevant…

    We may not succeed in this phase of evolution, but somewhere, in the expanse of the cosmos, another experiment may make it,  even if we don’t!

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