February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin - 12 February 1809

Charles Darwin was born 200 years ago today on 12 February 1809. The photo on the right shows him at age 51 right after he had published his masterwork On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.. This book has caused heated arguments when it was published and these arguments continue to today. But it is also one the most famous and influential books ever. American Philosopher Daniel Dennet has said (in 1995): "If I were to give a prize for the single best idea anybody ever had, I'd give it to Darwin for the idea of natural selection--ahead of Newton, ahead of Einstein. Because his idea unites the two most disparate features of our universe: The world of purposeless, meaningless matter-in-motion, on the one side, and the world of meaning, and purpose, and design on the other. He understood that what he was proposing was a truly revolutionary idea."
Scientific American agrees. in their January issue they called Darwin's Theory of Evolution The most powerful idea in science, saying: "The explanatory power of his concepts proved irresistable. Today, 200 years after his birth and 150 years after Origin of Species, Darwin's legacy is a larger, richer, more diverse set of theories that he could have imagined." But there is a lot of misunderstanding about what Darwin's ideas were. Many people think they know what that idea was and they think they understand it. As Jacques Monod said: "A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it." But as many scientists have pointed out only few people understand it well. Richard Dawkins has once said: "It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.." So, Darwin developed a theory which is still misunderstood by many but which remains enormously influential. How did Darwin accomplish such a feat? He wasn't arrogant about it: "Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been— the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points." (Source)

Reading suggestion
: Why Evolution Is True

1 comment:

  1. Leiden University 'Studium Generale' organizes a series of lectures around Darwin. Yesterday, February 12, dr Bas Haring opened the series discussing several themes involved in Evolution.
    www.studiumgenerale.leidenuniv.nl

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