Charles Darwin, who discovered and theorised about the process of natural Selection, which drives evolution, was born on this day 199 years ago. The influence of Darwin on the development of modern biology is hard to overstate. It was Darwin who first made theoretical sense of the vast diversity of life , both from the ancient past and the present, that we find on this earth. It is Darwins work which helps us make sense of the geology of fossils and their relationship to the development of life.
Darwins theory has very robustly withstood the winds of both rigorous scientific debate and the ill - informed attempts of the religious right in the US to attack what has been one of the most powerful explanatory theories in the history of science.
There has been much hot air from creationists in recent years as they have attempted to build their Trojan horse, in the form of so called "Intelligent design", to attack modern evolutionary biology. It has been little more than an attempt to wrap traditional creationism in a veneer of apparent science. This attempt has however been thoroughly trounced whenever it has faced the rigours of fulll scientific debate.
Next year will be the bi-centennial of Darwins Birthday. As we approach that anniversary those who support scientific rationalism can not afford to drop their guard against the attempts by creationists to sow misinformation and doubt about the achievements of the biological sciences in explaining evolution. There is still much ignorance and there remain those who continue to use smoke and mirrors to pursuade ordinary people that there is no evidence for natural selection. Anyone who knows anything about the subject knows how patently false and ridiculous this is.
But the fight continues - even today the Florida school board took public representations about it's biological science curriculum and the creationists turned out to try to pursuade it to weaken the teaching of natural selection and evolution.
Fundamentalists are people of conviction, which does not of course mean that their arguments have any intellectual weight. There are many in the Theist community who have managed successfully to put together their belief in God without denying the scientific evidence for evolution.
The attacks on Darwin come largely from Bible literalists - those whose faith only survives by hanging on to the literal truth of each word in the Bible - despite the clear contradictions and obscurity of meaning in that multi-authored book.
Those of us who are Atheists often take on both the issue of God belief and Darwinism in the same breath with such Bible literalists. Scientific rationalism in the form of natural selection is the most important of these areas of debate however; for denial of natural selection is a profound and irrational attack on the whole great edifice of rational scientific thought.
Comment included so far:
Looney, concerned as ever with balance in these matters, asked me why we don't celebrate Newton's birthday or Einstein's birthday - the implication being of course that us "Biology" types are only concerned with putting Darwin on a pedistal. To which I had to point out that Newton wasn't a great one for Birthday parties being a bit of an old grump and too busy with his spare time alchemy hobby.
As for Einstein it is of course difficult to celebrate his birthday because there is no absolute frame of reference of measurement of time in a relativistic universe so it was difficult to pin him down to exactly what day his birthday celebrations should be :-)
Nevertheless Looney has a point and perhaps we should have a Newton day and an Einstein day to celebrate these great men.
Looney also informs me that as a fan of the "Theory of Intelligent Design" ( an oxymoron surely Looney?) his patron Saint is Thomas Edison. A great engineer and designer of the light bulb and the phonograph of course. Looney notes that, when he lived in Japan, a local Buddhist temple in Osaka had a statue of him. As a bit of a fan of the Buddha ( the rational man's Holy man ) I am happy to salute Thomas Edison the great engineer and intelligent designer also.
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