WickedEye's Quotient

2/12/2008 at 22:35

Happy (Belated) Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin’s birthday (today is his 199th) is one of my favorite days of the year (coming as it does two days ahead of VD- yeah, I said it- on which, unhappily, there will probably be more at some other time… read: when I’m in a mood to have other people laugh at my misfortunes).

Darwin’s second voyage on the HMS Beagle, with its stop at the Galapagos Islands, changed biology- medicine, pharmacology, genetics, genomics, taxonomy- forever. If you doubt his preeminence, note that there is no greater intellectual snobbery than that of royalty, and that Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey near John Herschel, father of modern photography, and Isaac Newton, father of modern- well, everything.

Like all scientific genius, Darwin’s greatness is based on two profoundly simple insights, which have nonetheless shaken the very foundations of how we think about development, disease, and destiny:

1. Random mutation of genetic material occurs in all organisms.
2. Organisms with the attributes which give them an advantage in their environment survive.

Obvious, no? Ridiculously obvious. So ludicrously obvious that it’s laughable that anyone even bothered to articulate them.

So obvious no one even realized them. Or thought about them. Or followed through on their logical consequences.

From those consequences and their complex, subtle and profound shadings does all the glorious and dazzling variety of life on Earth spring. The mechanisms of evolution- adaptation, genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, natural selection, speciation- and their results permeate the biosphere and our lives in a way, and on a scale, and with a totality, that is frankly impossible to grasp.

Those who come close to grasping it are, to my knowledge, universally overcome with astonishment at the incredible effects of such simple facts.

Try, for a moment, to conceive of what that means: Your genetic predisposition to certain diseases, your sexual development in the womb, your dog’s eye color, the length of your cat’s claws, the rate of growth of the mold in your refrigerator, the dueling colonies of bacteria and fungi housed in your body, the texture of the apple you just bit into, the scent of the lilies on your hearth.

All of these owe their scientific articulation to Darwin.

Imagine it. Can you grasp the scale of it? It’s every bit as sprawling and stunning and splendid as any cosmological Theory of Everything could ever be.

And it lives inside you. Inside every living thing.

Like I’ve said before: Who needs magic?

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