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Darwin's 200th birthday

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Today is Darwin Day 200! Join us in celebrating the achievements of one of the most careful observers of nature.

Darwin's 200th birthday

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his later years. Photo by J. Cameron, 1869 (Wikipedia).

Charles Darwin's impact on our understanding of biology has been profound. He brought together many different observations and carefully reconstructed how evolution could work through natural selection.

Was Darwin right on everything? No, certainly not (he's human, so that's no surprise!). For example, his theory of genetics was wrong. He believed in "blending inheritance", which proposed that the features of children are the average of their parents' features and that no indivisible units of inheritance exist. However, Darwin's theory of evolution needs a theory of genetics that has indivisible units of inheritance. These units were found by the monk Gregor Mendel, another extremely careful observer of nature. Today we call these units 'genes' and we even know the chemical substance that they are made out of, 'DNA'.

The amazing thing about Darwin's work was how much of it stood the test of time. It took the founding of the new discipline of population genetics in the first part of the 20th century to work out the implications of combining the findings of Mendel and Darwin. To do this, often required complicated mathematical analyses and so it is no surprise that the three founding fathers of population genetics, Fisher, Wright and Haldane were all very good at mathematics. Their analyses and observations (and those of numerous careful researchers after them) have confirmed the important role of natural selection in evolution. Remarkable intuition by Darwin! Today evolutionary geneticists are working to determine how selection interacts with the other fundamental forces of evolution, which are mutation, genetic drift, recombination and migration. Much work remains to be done in fleshing out the relative contributions of these forces on the evolution of living organisms today and evolution@home contributes its bit.

Back to Darwin: Did you know that Darwin also made many important contributions to many other topics? His research touched inbreeding, plants, earthworms, .... (read more in the Darwin archive).

While the scientific community has long started to build on Darwin's findings, large parts of society in general are still struggling to accept the basics. Some part of this rejection critically depends on a lack of information about evolution. Another part is due to a perceived conflict between findings about natural selection ('what is') and moral intuitions ('what ought to be'). Here is not the space to adequately discuss this, but a better understanding of the Naturalistic Fallacy and the Is-ought problem clearly helps.

As in all things, one can also see a funny side to Darwin and evolution (see here and here) and to mark the occasion I want to contribute the following limerick. It might highlight some of the social tensions and conflicts that exercise many minds, including that of Darwin himself (see his sacred cause here, here and here):


Darwin chargin

There was a young man named Darwin
who unknowingly started charging
The rich of his time
with a hideous crime:

Evolve or you'll start starving

(c) 2009 Laurence Loewe



Happy Darwin Day 2009!

You can celebrate here or here and inform yourself here or here.

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