Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

Today is Charles Darwin's 203rd birthday. As most people know, Darwin revolutionized they way that we view life on earth. He was the first person to describe in detail the way that species evolve, or change over time and generations, through natural selection. Darwin's ideas and writings on evolution, introduced in the book On the Origin of Species published in 1859, were based largely on research that he conducted during a voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831-1836, visiting sites from the coast of South America to the South Pacific including, most famously, the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
In the 150 years since their publication, Darwin's ideas on evolution through natural selection have been proven correct, with some modifications, through mountains of painstaking and thorough research by countless scientists. And yet the very concept of evolution is still controversial, evoking doubt in some circles and outright scorn and contempt in others. It is safe to say that few ideas in history have been more divisive. This is because the concept of evolution strikes at the heart of what were the long-held assumptions of Christian doctrine, that God created the earth and all of its species, including humans, and that those species have remained unchanged since creation. More than a century and a half later, enough Christians cling to a "literal" interpretation of Biblical creation, and refuse to accept the reality of evolution, that controversies still arise in the United States over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes.

Charles Darwin himself experienced inwardly the conflicts that his research created in western culture. At the beginning of his voyage on the Beagle, he still believed in the theology taught by the Church of England and often quoted Biblical passages to the sailors on board the ship. By the time the voyage ended, however, he had already begun to question his orthodox views and had come to view the Old Testament story of creation as allegory. This change came not only because of his research on the natural world, but because during his travels he had witnessed cruelties such as slavery in South America and the misery that European colonization had inflicted on so many native populations. Darwin found that he had to question whether an all-powerful God would allow such suffering in the world. On returning to England, he continued to attend church until the crushing blow of the death of his daughter Annie at age ten in 1851. After that time, he habitually took a long walk while his wife Emma and their other children attended church.

Nevertheless, Darwin did not completely abandon belief in God. Even late in life he insisted that he was not an atheist but a self-described agnostic. He still believed in an intelligent "first cause," but believed that the nature of God was beyond the scope of human knowledge. In his personal life, Darwin exemplified many of the qualities that, ideally, Christianity and other religions promote: he was a devoted, dependable, and loving husband and father, respected and admired by friends, colleagues, and members of his community, an outspoken opponent of slavery and supporter of the extension of voting rights.

For more information on Charles Darwin's life and his contributions to science, I recommend the website Click on the links on the left side of the home page to explore his fascinating life.

In honor of Darwin's birthday, I would like to present one of Beebz's ancestors, the earliest known member of Squirrel Nation, Protosciurus:

This species lived in the northwestern part of North America around 25 million years ago, and is believed to be the ancestor of all modern squirrels. Without the ideas proposed by Charles Darwin, of course, we would not know this.

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