A few days ago, the 12th of February, was the 204th birthday of Charles Darwin. As the father of evolution Darwin was and still is one of the most controversial scientists in history. While Darwin’s story doesn’t have the dramatic flair of Galileo Galilei, or the comedic charm of Richard Feynman, he does have the honor of being among the most divisive figures in all of science.
At the age of 29 Darwin developed his theory of Natural Selection, based on his observations during his five year voyage aboard the now famous HMS Beagle. As the HMS Beagle circled the globe, Darwin made observations that would elevated Darwin in the world of science as a geologist. His observations of fossils in the South American jungles, the Galapagos Islands and the coastal waters and lands of Australia would confirm the theories of Charles Lyell. Darwin did not make hit thoughts on Natural Selection public of nearly two decades after his return.
When Darin finally released The Origin of Species, the outcry in scientific community was forceful. Scientists in Darwin home country of England, and abroad, spent a considerable effort to discredit Darwin. There was a scientific effort to prove that Darwin was wrong and the church was right. This did not phase Darwin however, as he continues to probe evolution in a series of books that followed about a decade after the first printing of On the Origin of Species. Darwin drew harsher criticisms from the church of course, though through out the process he maintained he faith. A scientist that probed the origins of life, yet still held on to his faith, quite the rarity.
Darwin’s theory, that brought forth the modern theory of evolution, remains as controversial today as it did 153 years ago. In fact I remember that on the 150th anniversary of the publishing of On the Origin of Species, I was given a free copy of the book by a church group that had added a forward stating that the book was wrong on several counts. This is probably not all that surprising to anyone that has been following politics or the news over the past few years, the disbelieve of evolution was appeared to be a key selling point in Republican primaries last year. All across the US there are debates in cities and towns and State Houses over weather or not to teach evolution in schools, or if creationism should share that time in the school year. There is no other theory, law, or scientific idea that has caused such controversy or sparked such debate. That includes the theory on the creation of the universe.
Darwin is a celebrated scientist, but not solely for his contributions to biology and evolutionary science. While Darwin’s work is well known around the world, I find something more in his story than just the results of his journey. Darwin embodied what it means to be a scientist. He was not afraid to question the status quo, he made observations and drew conclusions with a free mind. He refused to let the beliefs of others cloud his theories, nor did he let their dissent change his mind. Darwin was a curious man, what he saw while on board the Beagle sparked his curiosity, and drove him to seek answers. This is the core drive behind so many scientists, both young and old. While we should celebrate Darwin’s insights into the origin of life and how everything came to be in its current state, I think that it is Darwin’s curiosity, and drive to explore the unknown that should be celebrated.