As has been widely noted in the mainstream media, religious news, science journals, blogs, twitter, various litter, and over pints of bitters, today marks the 200th birthday of one Charles Robert Darwin – and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his landmark Origin of the Species.
I find that interesting.
No, not that it’s Darwin’s bicentennial per se, nor even that today is the publication anniversary of Origin. Rather what I find interesting is that anybody remembers it.
Darwin died on the 19th of April, 1882 (and no, contrary to Creationist myth, he did not recant his theories in those final moments and convert to young earth creationism. His last words were expressions of love for his wife and children and are quite well documented). Darwin was what in those days Englishmen called a naturalist, or what we today would refer to as an evolutionary biologist. By most credible accounts he was a kind, unassuming soul who delighted in logic and the pursuit of knowledge and who was filled with a burning zeal to contribute to scientific advancement. This made him a bit unusual, but not that unusual.
Certainly not so unusual that we should remember his birthday, fully one hundred and twenty seven years after his death.
Ask yourself something, how many other famous scientists are there whose birthdays we remember?
Quick, what’s the birthday of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek? Dutch scientist, father of microbiology, creator of the modern optical microscope, and discoverer of single celled organisms. What do you mean you don’t know? Van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries have a far greater impact on you, daily, than those of Charles Darwin.
OK, I’ll admit that unless you’ve taken microbiology or nursing or pre-med, you’ve probably never heard of van Leeuwenhoek, but surely you light a candle and have a piece of cake in celebration of the birth of Charles Babbage? Mathematician, inventor, mechanical engineer of the highest calibre (yes, calibre, Babbage was English) and the guy who came up with the concept of the programmable computer (computre? No, guess not) – an idea without which you wouldn’t even be reading this. Babbage’s theories led directly to discoveries and inventions that have a profound effect on your life every single day, both for good and for bad. Surely you know his birthday?
Odd. Babbage was a contemporary of Darwin – hell, they lived in the same city. And today, Darwin’s theories are often tested and simulated on machines that can trace their own evolution directly back to Babbage’s theories.
Well, OK then what about Benjamin Franklin? American Founding Father, kite enthusiast, famed inventor and polymath. Usually called the first American scientist. His birthday used to be a national holiday here in the States. The lightening rod he invented has probably saved your life at least once. And sooner or later you’ll probably be prescribed the bifocal glasses he invented. I’m sitting about ten feet from a Franklin stove right now. And no, Franklin didn’t actually invent it, but still we named kitchen appliances, schools and whole cities after him. Hell, he’s the only scientist whose likeness graces our money. Surely you know he was born on the 17th of January, 1706?
How about Marconi? Tesla? Edison? And Alexander Graham Bell? Unless you live deep in the Alaskan Bush, the combined discoveries of these men have had a major impact on your life. Literally, if you’ve ever been broadsided by somebody busy chatting about their birthday plans on a cell phone instead of paying attention to the road.
I once won the US Military’s Samuel B. Morse award, but I couldn’t tell you when old Sammy was born. I like making bread and enjoy being able to buy King Arthur red wheat flour whenever I want, but I couldn’t tell you when Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper/harvester or when he was born, even if my life depended on it. I tend to wear cottons and wools, I don’t much care for synthetics, and I know that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin led directly to industrialization of the textile industry and was a contributing factor in the American Civil War. I don’t know what day Eli took his first breath on though. And speaking of the cotton gin, I’m listen to Gordon Lightfoot at the moment, Cotton Ginny, to be precise (which is what reminded me of Ely Whitney), and I realize that I don’t know Gordy’s birthday either, just saying. Einstein? Salk? Bohr? Planck? Nope, sorry, I just don’t know. Hawking? Hell, he’s alive and I’ve heard him speak in person and I still don’t have a damned clue as to what day he was born on. Newspapers carried stories about Hawking’s ride on the NASA Vomit Comet – but no mention of him on his birthday so far as I can tell.
So, what’s the deal with some long dead bird collector?
Darwin didn’t invent a critical, world altering technology. His knowledge didn’t win a war or break a siege for his patron. He didn’t discover a life extending medical procedure. He didn’t define the principles of gravitation and planetary motion or land men on the moon. He didn’t feed the hungry or clothe the poor. He didn’t create the basis for Facebook or High Definition Plasma TV. He didn’t invent beer or bacon or microwave popcorn or free internet porn or any of the other things that make life worth living.
There have been plenty of other scientists down through the ages who have raised profound questions and stirred profound controversy. There have been plenty of scientists who challenged the religious status quo and offended the Church. Some of them were imprisoned or burned at the stake for their impunity. Darwin never faced the Inquisition or the Rack or was broken on the wheel – though he did face some harsh words from certain colleagues and there’s rumor that Dick Owen tied his shoe laces together when Darwin wasn’t looking. But really the guy didn’t face down the church, or the mob, or the government – he just kept plodding along, quiet and shy and unstoppable like the march of evolution itself.
So, again, what’s the deal with Charles Darwin?
Of course, you know the answer.
In reality, Darwin has had profound impact on our lives. He shook the world, he challenged the prevailing religious worldview and scientific establishment. It wasn’t the first time this has happened, and it wasn’t the last – but , unlike van Leeuwenhoek's germs or Babbage’s difference engines or Franklin’s electrical lightening or even Hawking’s radiation and quantum level black holes, Darwin’s discovery directly challenged our image of what it is to be human.
Darwin changed everything.
Because, you see, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the twelve decades of scientific development and advancement that followed its publication isn’t about God.
It’s about us.
Religion has reached an eventual accommodation with nearly every other major scientific theory - and in some cases embraced those theories enthusiastically long after rejecting them as hearsay.
But not Darwin. Not evolution.
And why is that?
Because all religions, all religions no matter their basic tenants, all faiths, share one fundamental commonality, and that is this: Of all the things in this universe, humans are special.
Some religions say humans are the favored of God, some say humans are cursed – but one way or the other, we’re special.
Darwin’s theory says that we’re not.
And that cannot be reconciled.
…or can it?
Additional thoughts about Charles Darwin on UCF Member Blogs:
And speaking of Evolution and Religion and strange, strange things:
I'm almost positive this is a parody site. If it is, it's hysterical. If it's not, well, it's even more hysterical.