Thursday, February 12, 2009

‘You know, Bob, Darwin really knew a lot of biology.’

As we have for the past couple of years, we join some of our friends in marking the 200th birthday of one of the more remarkable individuals our species has brought forth, Charles Darwin. (And, this year, we'd suggest you also raise a glass to the equally aged Abraham Lincoln, who was not only a remarkable primate himself but who has long been especially regarded -- by one of us -- as a fellow Illinoisan.)

I have little to add to the general festivities, other than, perhaps, to again post this image of Darwin, which I like since it shows him a bit younger and less austere than most portraits.

He's sans beard, you'll note, but the extraordinary sideburns hint at the (ahem) tangled bank to come.

There will be countless articles on Darwin today, but I thought one at the New York Times by Nicholas Wade was worthwhile.

It concludes:

Historians who are aware of the long eclipse endured by Darwin’s ideas perhaps have a clearer idea of his extraordinary contribution than do biologists, many of whom assume Darwin’s theory has always been seen to offer, as now, a grand explanatory framework for all biology. Dr. Richards, the University of Chicago historian, recalls that a biologist colleague “had occasion to read the ‘Origin’ for the first time — most biologists have never read the ‘Origin’ — because of a class he was teaching. We met on the street and he remarked, ‘You know, Bob, Darwin really knew a lot of biology.’ ”

Darwin knew a lot of biology: more than any of his contemporaries, more than a surprising number of his successors. From prolonged thought and study, he was able to intuit how evolution worked without having access to all the subsequent scientific knowledge that others required to be convinced of natural selection. He had the objectivity to put aside criteria with powerful emotional resonance, like the conviction that evolution should be purposeful. As a result, he saw deep into the strange workings of the evolutionary mechanism, an insight not really exceeded until a century after his great work of synthesis.

And, once again, here's the closing sentence from the Origin of Species, which I always like to imagine being read in the voice of James Earl Jones.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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