Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

…and happy birthday to any of you who share a birthday with him since you’re considerably more likely to receive these birthday wishes.

In some ways, I think Darwin’s place in the history of science is a little over-stated. There’s no question that he was (jointly) responsible for a tremendous leap in the theoretical model of how species emerge and change and that his ideas were initially extremely controversial. The concept of evolution was, however, obviously an idea whose time had come. Advances in other sciences ensured that someone, or more likely, someones would put the pieces together and work it out. Darwin and Wallace were the first to put pen to paper and publish the ideas, but the fact that two independent researchers came up with essentially the same idea at the same time suggests that, if not them, than someone else soon after.

There’s also the fact that Darwin’s theory was incomplete and not wholly accurate. Criticisms of “Darwinism” often refer back to Darwin’s original work as if there had been no progress made in the last almost two hundred years. Darwin made a conceptual leap, but he didn’t magically grasp the whole process through observation and intuition. He was, in short, wrong about many things. That’s how science works. As new evidence emerges, new theories or, at least, revisions to old theories, are required.

Frankly, it’s a little bit wacky to assume that a man born over two hundred years ago would be the ultimate authority on any scientific matter. We’ve made progress, we’ve learned more, we have better tools with which to study the evidence. To suggest that we don’t know any more about the world than we did when Darwin published Origin of Species is not only inaccurate, it’s unscientific and kind of insulting.

Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin. Thank you for taking those first steps towards better understanding how the world works and pointing us in what still appears to be the right direction.

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