Darwin Day

Darwin’s first diagram of an evolutionary tree, a sketch from his 1837 First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837)

Next time you’re at the proverbial cocktail party, try to start a conversation by asking someone what they think of general relativity. Or special relativity. Or plate tectonics. Or cell theory. Or, well, you get the idea. Odds are it will take considerable effort to find someone with any interest in, or opinion on, a scientific theory.

Unless the theory is Darwinian evolution. Your odds of finding someone with both interest and opinions will go up dramatically if you mention natural selection and common ancestors. It’s difficult to think of another scientific theory that is as well known (if not understood) and about which people hold stronger opinions.

Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871. (The links are to Project Gutenberg; both books are in the public domain.) A century and a half later many well-educated, intelligent people still resist the concepts underlying Darwin’s work, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding evolution.

The Wikipedia entry regarding On The Origin of Species says it succinctly: “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection … has become the unifying theory of the life sciences. The theory explains the diversity of living organisms and their adaptation to the environment. It makes sense of the geologic record, biogeography, parallels in embryonic development, biological homologies, vestigiality, cladistics, phylogenetics and other fields, with unrivalled explanatory power; it has also become essential to applied sciences such as medicine and agriculture.”

The idea of evolution touches us personally, in a way most other scientific theories do not. It’s about us, about humanity. It tells us we’re not special, at least not in terms of our origin and biological development as animals. And it directly contradicts most cultural and religious stories of origin. While not diminishing the metaphorical or spiritual impact of creation stories, evolution does firmly lock them out of the realm of reality.

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. Recognizing the significance of his contribution to our knowledge of the natural world, and our place within that world, the American Humanist Association formed the International Darwin Day Foundation, and is working to have February 12 declared Darwin Day. Resolutions to that effect have been placed before the US Congress and House of Representatives.

Darwin Day is not just about Darwin and evolution. It’s a recognition of the role science has played in the betterment of humanity, and a celebration of discovery and knowledge.

In Canada, cities including Vancouver, Regina, and most recently Nanaimo have proclaimed February 12 as Darwin Day. I hope the municipalities of the Comox Valley will follow their example in 2014.