Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

I seem to recall, once upon a time, when February 12 was observed and celebrated in my home country as the anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln (although it was never a national holiday). That seems a worthy thing to remember. Unfortunately for Abe, his birthday fell a bit too near that of one of the other revered former Presidents of the United States, a certain George Washington (February 22). So during the term of office of one of the slimier occupants of the job, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February, which oddly enough never actually occurs on either Washington's or Lincoln's birthday.

[From looking at the Wikipedia entry on President's Day, I note that Washington wasn't actually born on February 22, either, but you'll have to go read that for yourself.]

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the actual subject of this post, which is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. As a trained environmental scientist (that's my other degree; I also have one in Rhetoric), I have a certain soft spot in my heart for Darwin and his work. You can't get very far in studying the life sciences without encountering Darwin, his theories, and the century-and-a-half of subsequent work that has come from it.

Fairness dictates that I should mention that Darwin's work did not occur in a vacuum. There were plenty of other scientists (notably, Alfred Russel Wallace) who were arriving at similar conclusions at around the same time. Scientific "discoveries" often happen like that, but someone usually gets the credit.

Be that as it may, Darwin is clearly the iconic character in the modern understanding (and often misunderstanding) of evolution. It is fair to say that for many people, Darwin is responsible for them having any notion of the existence of evolution or the mechanisms behind it (As far as I can tell, he did coin the term "natural selection".).

I like the fact that Darwin Day focuses on science and humanity. Any event that can join those two notions is a worthy one in my view.

So, things change, and I guess even holidays evolve. If it's mid-February, you could do much worse than to ruminate a bit on the contributions of Darwin and science.

And if you feel generous, put in a good thought for Galileo (February 15), too. He tried very hard to bring light to a dark age, and was condemned and banished for it. The work that got him banned, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, is absolutely brilliant. It was probably the single most influential science writing I ever read (and I read it in a Rhetoric class!).

There is much to celebrate.

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