It's Charles Darwin's 199th birthday, and folks around the world are celebrating the life of the man behind the theory of evolution. I'm an advocate of expanding Darwin day to include Alfred Russel Wallace, who was something of a wonder naturalist himself. Through years spent in the Amazonian and Indonesian jungles, Wallace independently came up with the idea of natural selection and nearly beat Darwin to publication without really trying. And his 185th birthday was just a month ago - January 8 - so why not a double celebration?
Darwin was exceedingly conflicted about the religious implications of his theory, since it essentially relieved the Creator of all the detail work involved in creating species. And alas, he's no less contentious two centuries on - Wired has news of still-raging debates in Florida and possibly Texas about whether school science courses should broach the fact that evolution happens.
It's puzzling to me, since plenty of scientists have been happy to marvel at evolution while retaining their faith in a Creator. Recently in Antarctica, I got to visit the huts where Victorian explorers risked their lives to research penguin evolution and look for geological clues to the age of the Earth. Yet each Sunday they dressed for church and held services, entirely unconflicted.
A new, free book by the National Academy of Sciences (Science, Evolution, and Creationism) addresses the conflict head on, including an FAQ section that kicks off with "Aren't evolution and religion opposing ideas?" The answer's a pretty good one - although since it is Darwin day and all, you might just want to head straight over to the Origin of Species itself. Darwin was a lucid writer, and he devoted an entire chapter to raising all the major objections to his theory before anyone else did.
It's great reading and a needed reminder of why natural history is as important for understanding the world as any other kind of history. For example:
Can a more striking instance of adaptation be given than that of a woodpecker for climbing trees and for seizing insects in the chinks of the bark? Yet in North America there are woodpeckers which feed largely on fruit, and others with elongated wings which chase insects on the wing; and on the plains of La Plata, where not a tree grows, there is a woodpecker, which in every essential part of its organisation, even in its colouring, in the harsh tone of its voice, and undulatory flight, told me plainly of its close blood-relationship to our common species; yet it is a woodpecker which never climbs a tree! ... He who believes that each being has been created as we now see it, must occasionally have felt surprise when he has met with an animal having habits and structure not at all in agreement.
He even raised the prospect of intelligent design some 130 years ahead of its time:
It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?
Darwin's was buried in Westminster Abbey in recognition of his contribution to science and society. I like to think the funeral was also a small, early step in reconciling evolution with religion, commemorating how Darwin gave us a clearer understanding of the miracles of existence, and nothing more threatening than that.
Now please pass the cake, we've got a lot of candles to blow out.