Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Chuck

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.

Nothing, huh?

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:

Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets

Hot Chicks and Smart Men


And speaking of Evolution and Religion and strange, strange things:

Check this out.

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.


  1. Hey, if the Pope can reconcile his belief, why can't everyone else?

    He's not exactly known for his liberal thinking, you know.

  2. I've said it before...I have no problem with the possibility of a heavenly being omnipotent enough to have "intelligently designed" a world in which a system as exquisite as evolution is the operating mechanism.

    Anyone who takes issue with that is selling their God short.

    (Oh, and I was tempted to just call Babbage an asshole for making us read your drivel. :D)

  3. Well, a number of accounts do basically call Babbage an asshole - but most of those were written by people who couldn't get either Linux or OSX to boot on the Difference Engine...

  4. for the record - november 17, 1938 in the little town of orillia for uncle gordie.

  5. Well, sure, nocurling. Everybody knows that - I was just checking to see if you were paying attention.

    Yeah, that's it.

    And now that I think about it, I suddenly seem to recall that Hawking took that ride on the Vomit Comet on his birthday, which come to think of it may actually have been mentioned in the press after all. A lot.

  6. Check out the link I just added to the end of the post.

    Les, over at Stupid Evil Bastard mentioned this site a while back (that link takes you to the post on his site), and I've been sort of reading through the site for the last week, intending to just flame spray the crap out of it. However, I've come to think it's a parody. A very elaborate and detailed parody - at least I hope to hell it is. Because seriously, folks, nobody should be that stupid.

  7. Janiece, it wasn't *this* pope or the last one.

    And considering that this pope just un-excommunicated Holocaust deniers, I wouldn't hold out much hope there.

  8. Great post, Jim!

    Of course, one reason we remember Darwin's birthday is that it's been picked as a symbolic day to defend his scientific legacy against the attacks you refer to from those who fear Darwin "dehumanized" humanity. We might indeed remember Einstein's birthday if a loud cadre of religious sectarians kept trying to to "teach the debate" in physics (clearly, if the world was invented in 4004 BCE, then the speed of light cannot be constant--consider the obviously-misleading claim that quasar 3C 273 is two-and-a-half billion light years away; obviously light used to be much faster at the time of the Creation, so the speed of light isn't a constant, and therefore E=mc^2 is incorrect, QED). Then we might indeed have an "Einstein Day" every March 14th.

    In that sense, it's a shame to need a Darwin Day.

    Earlier today, at the courthouse, I passed a curmudgeonly private lawyer who I know to be interested in science, and I wished him a "happy Darwin Day." We chatted a little about the Kitzmiller case. But what was weird was the way I felt like a first-century Christian or Soviet dissident saying "happy Darwin Day," as if it were some strange secret that would lead to being stoned and had to be referred to in code. Perhaps I need to learn the FSM handsign. Is there a FSM handsign?

    O'course, I've also had this deep admiration for Darwin since junior high, when a biography I read made it clear what a genuinely decent guy he was, an assessment I've never seen contradicted in the biographies or letters I've read since. Maybe I'd be celebrating his birthday anyway, even if my countrymen were more scientifically literate.

    Anyway, happy Darwin Day!

  9. "OK, I’ll admit that unless you’ve taken microbiology or nursing or pre-med, you’ve probably never heard of van Leeuwenhoek"

    Wrong, I first heard about him in 5th grade while watching Cosmos and then again in 9th grade Biology. :P

    I'm ambivalent about Darwin Day for the very reason you mention - I'm unhappy we need it. Here's the thing that shows that Darwin Day is a layman's construct for and about the struggle for decent science in public education, not for scientists - in science we don't really celebrate the birthday, we celebrate the year, and sometimes the day, of the scientific discovery. 2005 was the centennial of the Einstein papers, and it was all over the scientific press, but just a little in the lay press. I noticed that John Dalton's death anniversary was noted last year in the scientific press (and not at all in the lay press) only because his atomic theory was finalized in 1858, so the centennial of his death coincided with the 150th year since we've had a scientific theory of atoms. I, myself wrote about the anniversary of birth the synthetic organic chemical industry back in 2006 - but what I noted was the year Perkins discovered mauvine, not the year of his birth, and the only way I remember his birth year is because I know he was 15 when he did it.

    What's important to a scientist is not when another scientist was born, but how long mankind has not been ignorant of his or her contribution to knowledge.

    So, while I celebrate the man, the most important number to me is 150, not 200.

  10. "van Leeuwenhoek"

    Well, my dad was a high school biology teacher, so I grew up with a love of science. One of the best courses I took in college was a Philosophy of Science sequence, which really ended up being a history of science sequence with emphasis on the changing ideas of science over time. I've also worked in a college biology department.

    Anyway, I'm a total history of science geek so, yeah, I've heard of him. And everyone else you mentioned. No idea what their birthdays are, however.

    I feel like having an historical foundation for anything adds to my appreciation of it. If you don't know the history of the battles being fought today you aren't as effective in however you choose to contribute.

    "...people who couldn't get either Linux or OSX to boot on the Difference Engine..."


  11. "OK, I’ll admit that unless you’ve taken microbiology or nursing or pre-med, you’ve probably never heard of van Leeuwenhoek"

    Wrong, I first heard about him in 5th grade while watching Cosmos and then again in 9th grade Biology.

    Note the use of the word "probably." Science, it's in the details. Just sayin' Yuck, Yuck.

    And Mensely, I've always felt that Babbage's decision to ship the difference engine with Windows 3.1 and Internet Explorer (Pre-Industrial Age Release) pre-loaded was a huge mistake...

  12. "And Mensely, I've always felt that Babbage's decision to ship the difference engine with Windows 3.1 and Internet Explorer (Pre-Industrial Age Release) pre-loaded was a huge mistake..."

    Internet Explorer? I had to get winsock working and download Navigator via carrier pigeon, and after the inevitable crashes pick up the gears which exploded all over the room and spread kitty litter over the oil spills.

  13. Jim,

    I think I may have to disagree with the main premise of your contention.

    I did not know until this year when Charles Darwin's birthday was.

    Why? Wasn't important.

    Only reason we're all over it this year is because it's the 200th anniversary of his birth. We tend to get excited about centennials and bicentennials for some reason.

    As John said, what is typically noted are anniversaries of discoveries and inventions.

    I enjoyed all the discussion about Marconi several years ago. There was a big thing on Rosalind Franklin in 2003 (50th anniversary of her death?). Didn't we celebrate Marie Curie on the 100th anniversary of her discovery?

    I think there is a ton of awareness this year about Darwin simply because it's his bicentennial (after all, we're hearing a ton about Lincoln today as well). Next year, no one will mention Darwin's birthday, and perhaps we'll be celebrating the publication of Galileo's publication of support of the Copernican universe (400 years, right?)

    Yes, it's awesome that we're celebrating Darwin and his achievements today--and we SHOULD be doing so, because like Galileo, like Einstein, he fundamentally changed the way we view the world. But the reason his birthday is being remembered so widely today is not because he was so influential, but because he was so influential AND because it's the bicentennial of his birth.

    Will anyone remember next year? A few people. But like I said, next year will be looking at another anniversary and Darwin's life will have faded into the background.

    And I'm good with that. Let's celebrate Galileo in 2010. In 1911 let's celebrate Einstein's challenge.

    May every year celebrate a *different* scientist and his or her discoveries, whether that be the bicentennial of his birth, or the centennial of her discoveries.

  14. PS

    Leeuwenhoek was discussed in high school biology, at least in my text books. :)

  15. I had to get winsock working and download Navigator via carrier pigeon

    You had Navigator? All I had was an illegal copy of Mosiac on 5.25 floppy running on a hand cranked Gateway 2000 difference engine knockoff of the 386/33...

    Times were hard back then, Mensley.


    You know, I picked van Leeuwenhoek because I could have mentioned him to any random group of Wal-Mart shoppers, Facebook friends, or republicans and gotten nothing but a confused "Eddie van Halen discovered the microscope? Cool, rock on, dude."

    You bastards are on a first name basis with the guy.

    Me? I learned about him in college microbiology. I'm pretty sure nobody in my high school ever heard of him. I remember him in detail twenty five years later because the exam was written and we were required to spell Antonnie Van Leeuwenhoek correctly for full credit.

  16. I'm oddly surprised that no one else as said this, but I suspect that the reason we're celebrating Darwin's birthday is that some science people feel under siege from the creationist/ID crowd and seized upon an opportunity to crow for science.

    Not that I'm opposed to this in any way, and I'm happy to admit when my side is geeking for the press.

    Thanks to my mother in law I get National Geographic and Smithsonian (excellent suggestion to anyone out there who has a relative who wants to get you someting. I think of her thankfully twice a month), and both had cover stories about Darwin this month.

    I agree that the entire advance of science has also been reflected in western religions' grumpiness about our being less than rare and special snowflakes. I love the fact that the Dalai Lama has said on multiple occasions that should science disagree with buddhism then it's a challenge to buddhism to reflect science. But then again there's a good argument to be made that buddhism isn't religion in some senses.

    "Times were hard back then, Mensley. "

    Yeah, but did you grind your own gears and pour your own babbit for the bearings that were needed to get images from a difference engine? I still have nightmares about the guts of that old Royal typewriter clattering over the wire grid I'd laid in the living room over a king size sheet.

  17. "You bastards are on a first name basis with the guy."

    Well, no, I was just saying that I'd heard of the guy. And like you in college for the most part.

    New around here but you're surprised that when you post frightfully insightful commentary and actively maintain a low level of idiocy that the comments are informed?

    Anyway, I learned a long time ago that trivia to one person is bread and butter to another.

  18. Hey, I had a Difference Engine with Windows 1.04. Do you know how many levels of Suck that represents? Windows 1.04 doesn't actually do anything, except use up most of the 640KB of memory that MS-DOS thought the universe consisted of. On the other hand, it could run (for some values of run) at 4.77 MHz. If you had a Difference Engine that could run that fast...

    Dr. Phil

  19. Ah, thank Darwin, it's Dr. Phil - somebody who is older than me (technically Nathan is a year older than me, but he acts like a teenager. Show business people, you know).

    I do remember Windows 1, Phil. I have a copy of it. Somewhere, in the museum storeroom I call my basement - unfortunately it really is on 5.25" floppies and the Zenith 248 it came with is long, long dead. I also have a copy of Windows 286 and QuarterDeck. Hell, I have a box of 8" "floppies" for my old TRS-80 system (no longer have the Trash though). My son and I were cleaning out the storeroom last week and he was laughing in utter derision at some of the ancient computing equipment we kept turning up (yes, yes - I can't throw anything away, you never know when you might need a first generation sony external 1x CDROM the size of a stereo system complete with SCSI-1 cable as thick as your thumb or an OKIDATA wide carriage continuous feed 9-pin dot matrix printer complete with a box of yellowed tractor-drive fan-fold 132 column paper - hey, screw your laughter, I used that to print code for my compsci degree program. Yes, it was considered modern equipment at the time. Hell, there might even be a real difference engine down there.) My son said he hadn't realized how old I was and he suggested we call a museum. I suggested he shut the hell up or maybe I'd stuff him into that old Gateway 2000 486/33 server chassis...

  20. As you know, Jim, your boy's day will come: his own kids dismayed that all those silver discs only fit one movie into that vast real estate and why are they called "Blu" when they're obviously silver, and what is "wee-fee" and is it true that cars used to really be powered by farts?

    You may want to warn him.... Nah, he'll never believe you, and deserves to find out for himself one of these days.

  21. Sorry, Jim, the only way I knew it was Darwin's birthday was thanks to NPR.

    I did know it was Lincoln's birthday.


  22. And Jim, just so you know, you and Phil could probably donate to the same museum. I'm just sayin'. Who knows, you two may have new species of tech spawning as I type, or a black hole forming (a la Phil's story "Boxes").

    And on more than one occassion I've been working somewhere and been able to canabalize two broken printers to make a whole functioning one. (IT degree, used to do tech support & installation)

    I'm afraid Phil and I come by the packratitis gene honestly, and both of us are long-time practioners of the art.


  23. Hey, those 9-pin Okidata printers are legendary -- they are hard to kill. And they're great on carbon or carbonless multi-part forms. Oh wait, you'd probably have to explain to your son what carbon paper is... damn. We ARE old. (And just getting started.)

    As for multi-tasking on an 8088 processor under DOS, I have one word for you: SideKick. Damn useful program. Utter pain to get it to work right on clones. (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  24. Hey! Sidekick, I forgot all about that. What a great little program. I'll have to go dig through the old floppy Rolodex and see if I still have a copy.

    I doubt that the disks are still readable - even if I could get an old drive up and running.

    It occurred to me a while back that out of the ten or so computers currently running in my house, not one has a floppy drive of any kind (though I do have a couple of USB external units if I actually needed one). Not only that, but I actually can't remember the last time I bought a program that came on a floppy disk of any kind - in fact, I was trying to remember when the last time was that I bought program other than via download.

    And with the advances in memory cards (really, why would you own an SD stick with less than 1GB?) any kind of mechanical removable storage is looking pretty primitive - and that includes double layer DVD's (What?! Only 9 gig of storage? Crap! Much cheaper and easier to back up my harddrives to, uh, other harddrives).

    And speaking of backups, I found my old SCSI Technics tape backup unit in the store room. Tape. Oh yeah. Nothing like linear random access...

    Evolution indeed.

  25. Now is that a 7- or 9-track tape machine?

    Dr. Phil

  26. 7 (technically 6, since track 0 is a control track encoded with a timing pulse and you couldn't write data there). I think I have a box of 3M or TDK tapes for it too, I'll have to look.

    The power supply is fried though and the tracking head is missing. The damned thing cost a fortune though, and I couldn't bear to just toss it in the dumpster. Besides, the servo motors might be useful. Someday. For something. Maybe.

  27. ...really, why would you own an SD stick with less than 1GB?

    That 256k SD card was the second-biggest one you could get and cost a lot of money when I bought it! It's not my fault I can't do a damn thing with it anymore and now it just sits in a retired PDA that never leaves its dock anymore!


  28. As I am currently sticking 8GB CF, SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo cards into devices, I realize that this Sony Memory Stick over here says 8MB. Ah to think about when 8MB of portable storage was Freedom. (grin)

    The first computer I ever owned was a Sinclair ZX-81, advertised in Scientific American for $149.95 assembled or $99.95 for the "kit" -- but introductory priced at $99.95 assembled, which made it easy to spring for the 16K (yes kilobyte) memory upgrade for ONLY $49.95. I believe that translates to $3.27 million per gigabyte of memory. My, that's some expensive memory!

    Dr. Phil

  29. 8MB? My sony digital camera takes hi-res Tiffs. One won't fit in 8MB.

    On the gripping hand: HCSD chips now come in 8GB - that's a full HD DVD.

    Screw stupid bulky mechanical storage. I want my movies on chip and no moving parts. Shit, If I could get all my movies on SD chip, they'd take up a hundredth of the space currently devoted to DVD case storage in my house (it's Alaska, the cable goes out - we like movies. We've got a lot of DVDs. A lot.

  30. Jim, my husband wants your basement. He is still annoyed at me for renovating our very small basement. As part of that process, he threw out an ungodly number of computer carcasses, pieces, items, objects, and things. Regarding the fifteen 286 motherboards: "I might need these someday." We threw out 30+ boxes, 15 garbage bags and a bunch of furniture. He's still annoyed. Maybe I'll send him to live with you. Yeah, that's right. Bye, husband. Have fun in Alaska. Don't forget your mukluks..." :-)


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