Darwin's 200th Birthday--Updated

UPDATE October 14, 2009: In honor of his 200th birthday, a "missing link" of flying dinosaurs, which filled in a gap, millions of years long, between the earliest, primitive pterosaurs and those that followed has been named after him.  The gap was known in Darwin's time and the features of Darwinopterus reveal much about how these creatures evolved.

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.  It is a testament to both the scope and revolutionary nature of his ideas that they still elicit such deep animosity, however misplaced it is.  What Darwin really delivered, was the greatest gift of all.  He looked in the same mirror that countless before him had seen and realized something that no one else ever had.  He showed us who we are.  He shared with us a secret about ourselves that he uncovered through his hard work and insight that has never been equaled.  For this, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.  Taking a moment to remember him this week is the least we can do.

The intellectually dishonest criticism from the religious right is a black mark on our society.  So is the continued widespread believe in America that Darwin was wrong and that humans came forth fully formed by the hand of God, instead of evolved from prior species.  The above article by John G. West assails Darwin for his support of eugenics and racism.  This was at the root of William Jennings Bryant's famous opposition as well. 

What West and other critics miss, however, is that almost every white man in Britain was a racist during Darwin's times.  You can't expect him to overcome the pervasive racism of the day just because he was a brilliant scientist.  His was born into a worldview that was rooted in race as the defining characteristic of a person's worth.  No doubt, if you subjected the greatest minds of the past to as thorough a critique as Christian ideologues have to Darwin, you would find all sorts of unseemly traits that would have nothing to do with the merits of their scientific ideas.

West appears to think that you must believe in eugenics if you believe in natural selection.  This is a red herring.  Eugenics is the elimination of "undesirable" genes by eliminating those that carry them in the population.  The problem is: what makes one gene desirable and another undesirable?  First of all, the interaction between genes and the environment is too complex for our limited understanding of genetics.  What gene does what, when and how?  Even assuming significant advances in that understanding, it may never be possible for us to speak about the role of genes with the kind of certitude reserved for mathematics or physics. 

A good example is the genetic condition known as sickle-cell anemia.  There are three types of carriers of the gene responsible for this condition in the population: the first is one who did not inherit the gene from either parent; the second has inherited it from one parent; and the third has inherited it from both parents.  Only the third have the disease, a painful condition where the red blood cells in the body are ill-formed.  If, however, you have only one gene, you receive from your parents some protection from perhaps the greatest killer in history: malaria.  Of course, if you don't have any copy of the gene, you have no protection from the disease.  So what does an aspiring eugenecist do?  which is the good gene and which is the bad one?

There is another presumption made by eugenics, which is not based on current knowledge, but on future knowledge.  Even if we know EVERYTHING about genes and our environment, we don't know what our environment will be in the future.  Today's undesirable trait may be tomorrow's only hope.  It's hubris to assume that we can begin culling our gene pool without worrying about consequences in the future.

There is nothing anti-Christian or anti-religious about Darwin.  In fact, religion and science should never be at odds.  One concerns itself with with the knowable, and one concerns itself with the unknowable.  It is only when the later tries to impinge upon the former that there are problems.  History is filled with examples of scientific observation running afoul of religious dogma.  The results have never been pretty and our experience with Darwin is no exception.

If you are a person of faith, Darwinism should be viewed as a celebration of God's handiwork.  Only a literal reading of the bible could be seen at odds with the concept of speciation and a literal reading of the bible is not reasonable.  Reason and The human mind are our greatest hopes.  They are the most powerful tools in the world.  Allowing one's desire to believe something that isn't supported by the facts undermines that tool. 

Perhaps Darwin should have seen his work as at odds with the social ills of his time.  He didn't.  So noted.  Nobody's perfect.  In that regard, he was no different than the rest of us.  In particular, he was no different from a man born across the Atlantic on that same day.  That man believed that blacks were fundamentally inferior to whites.  Despite this, Abraham Lincoln was able to overcome the view that blacks did not deserve the same rights to freedom as whites.  Perhaps he should have taken it to the next level and supported the position that race doesn't make people superior or inferior.  He didn't.  So noted.  Nobody's perfect.

This Thursday, take a moment to look in the mirror.  What you see is the legacy of a process that started millenia ago with tiny steps leading to big changes.  What you see is you.  Thanks to the hard work and genius of one man, you know yourself more than anyone before him ever could.

Be thankful.

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