Darwin for Modernity

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

On 24 November 2010, the world celebrated the 151st anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  In my estimation, this was the greatest book ever written in the sciences and is probably among the top 100 most influential texts for Western society in the past two millennia.  It provided a unifying framework for our views on space, time, and living things.  For this reason, the date – 24 November 1859 – represents the birthday of modern biology.

When my students hear me reel with such superlatives, they often roll their eyes and exclaim, “That Dr. Rinker – there he goes again!”  But they don’t do that when I speak about Mr. Darwin’s influence on modernity.  They, too, intuit the Earth-shattering impact of this man’s ideas on us moderns – all of us, whether doctors, lawyers, politicians, businessmen, teachers, housewives, retirees, no matter our esteemed professions.

In fact, over the entrance to my lab, I have framed largely one of my favorite quotes by Darwin as a daily reminder about the import of this man: “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid.”  Like an earthquake, Darwin’s conceptual framework destroyed old ways of thinking and provided instead a wonder-filled understanding of Earth’s living complexities.

Thus, it bothers me to no end when otherwise well-meaning people castigate Darwin’s work as something wicked or even atheistic.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Sadly, some of these folks derive their viewpoints not from any direct study of Mr. Darwin but from the erroneous impressions of others too often with a narrow political or religious agenda.  Darwin was not a wicked man nor was he an atheist, and his writings about the origins of species have “stood the test of time,” whether we’re studying coral reefs, orchids, climbing plants, domestic animals, sundews and flytraps, humans, or even earthworms.  In other words, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection applies eternally across the great and ancient spectrum of biodiversity on our planet.  Rather than being wicked or atheistic, Darwin closed his book, On the Origin of Species, with his inspiring conviction that “there is grandeur in the view of life.”

Gravity works, and so does evolution.  Both phenomena hold equal value in the sciences as general unifying postulates for their respective fields with mountains of unequivocal evidence for their workings in the natural world.  Any perceived ambiguities likely come from obtuse political or religious opinions rather than weaknesses in the theory itself.  Recall that the word, theory, in the parlance of science is not a guess but a powerful hypothesis that has “stood the test of time” in all its applications.  Like Newton’s apple, evolution will hit you on the head whether you believe it or not.

I cannot help but recall the famous Latin quote that eminent analytical psychiatrist Carl Jung had carved over the doorway to his home: “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit,” or “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”  I, too, have this quote outside the entryway to my home.  I, like many of my fellow scientists, am a believer in the Divine and a lifelong supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  To contrive any discord between God and Creation is to suggest (blasphemously, in my estimation) that the Maker, the Method, and the Made are disconnected and in chaos.  Anti-evolution sentiment is more about fear and misunderstanding than about the authorship of nature.

Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, ought to be required reading for all students of modernity as a unified framework to help us understand the principles of nature and, consequently, our informed role as stewards of a living planet.