Happy birthday, Charles Darwin!
Today marks the celebration of 196 years since the eminent British naturalist and evolutionary theorist whose ideas about the development on life on earth and the mechanism of natural selection have profoundly influenced many, many thinkers as well as stirred up controversy from the time he published his theories.
Interested in biology from an early age, Darwin began his study of medicine at Edinburgh University at the age of 16, although his horror at watching surgery without anesthesia prompted him to leave, instead going to Cambridge University to study for the clergy.
Accepting a position as a naturalist on the ship H.M.S. Beagle in 1831, Darwin went on a five-year expedition to South America, during which time his observations led him to an understanding of the evolutionary process of natural selection laid out in his best known work, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." While Darwin was not the first thinker to suggest ideas of evolution, he was the one who laid out the mechanisms for understanding natural selection.
No stranger to controversy in his own day, Darwin might not be terribly surprised to hear of the recent situations of voices raised over his theory, such as is occurring in Pennsylvania and Georgia schools. Evolution, as part of the curriculum in science classes around the nation, continues to become a touchy subject. It is perhaps a misunderstanding of Darwin's theory of evolution and subscription to myths surrounding this scientific theory that is one of the causes for these recent rows.
Education and understanding about the theory of evolution is essential, Lindsay Melsen, president of the CSU Anthropology Club said. As the club sponsors Darwin Day this year, the Anthropology Club and others hope to dispel some popular myths about Darwin and evolution.
"We would like to help them better understand the truths of evolution and natural selection," Melsen said of the purpose of Darwin Day, something that (in light of all the recent controversy) seems to be much needed.
Overcoming such misunderstandings and acknowledging the scientific validity of evolution is an important step for educators and students across the country. Indeed, there are many myths and misunderstandings about Darwin and the theory of evolution, and such misunderstandings may indeed be adding to the current climate of controversy in many places.
Firstly, points out Melsen and other scholars, the recent situation in which Cobb County (Ga.) school board put stickers on textbooks proclaiming "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things" is problematic for a variety of reasons, in particular the way in which the word "theory" is portrayed.
The way in which "theory" is worded in the Georgia stickers, says historian Edward Lawson in an article by Jerry Adler in Newsweek, "encourages confusion over the everyday meaning of 'theory'– akin to 'hunch'– with the scientific meaning, a systematic framework to explain observations."
A theory, in science, is usually accepted as true by the community and is based on a set of related observations verified many times. Even things such as plate tectonics are considered theories, and very few would put a sticker on geology books arguing that plate tectonics is "just" a theory.
Another popular myth is that Darwin advanced the idea of "survival of the fittest." Indeed, it was a rival of Darwin's, social philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined this phrase. While Spencer's idea has been used to promote unscientific and harmful views of "social evolution," Darwin instead proposed the idea of natural selection: "I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection," Darwin himself explained. Evolution is not progressive, Melsen said, but rather random, since "every animal has different environmental pressures and stresses. Evolution is an ongoing and continuous process led by natural selection, genetic mutations, genetic drift and gene flow."
Perhaps one of the most troubling notions about Darwin and evolution is the idea that religion and Darwinian science cannot co-exist. Indeed, as Cornelia Dean of the New York Times points out, "two popes, Pius XII in 1950 and John Paul II in 1996, have endorsed the idea that evolution and religion can co-exist." Dr. Jon Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University, points out in the New York Times that even in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries such as Poland, "perhaps 75 percent of the people surveyed accept evolution."
Understanding and dispelling these myths about evolution and Darwin are important and perhaps can help alleviate some of the controversies surrounding the topic, or at least help people understand why evolution should and indeed must be taught in science classrooms around the country. Not teaching it, or perpetuating myths about evolution, "serves the students and the nation poorly as they enter an age likely to be dominated by biology," as the New York Times editorial staff recently said.
Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs on Fridays in the Collegian.