Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin's 200th

Sorry for the foray away from triathlon and training, but today is a big day for the "geek" side of my personality.
Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, and this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work "On the Origin of Species". I'm a huge fan of Darwin, I am one of the many who count him as possibly the most important scientist in all of human history. I once heard the distinguished biologist Richard Dawkins speak about Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection and he said something along the lines of: "it explains everything about the natural world, and requires almost no pre-supposition to do so". Natural selection is easy to understand - you don't need a degree in biology to grasp the idea. You could explain it in a few sentences to anyone and they would get the concept. Compare that with Einstein's theory of relativity, in which a great deal of knowledge is required before you can even begin!
Darwin's theory is so powerful because it explains who and what we are. There are literally millions of pieces of evidence corroborating the theory, and in 200 years not a single piece that disproves it. It's as close to fact as anything in science. In 1859, for the first time in human history, we knew our place in the universe. How glorious is that?! Of course natural selection blows all of the Creation Myths out of the water - including all three of the world's major religions - which I'm sure is unsettling for some. Especially for those who think of humans as elevated above other creatures in the world. They didn't want to hear that we as a species just got lucky and our naturally selected advantage was the ability to out-think our competition. This makes us unique, but not special - we play by the same rules as all of nature does. For the most part the world has gotten over their distaste for the world Darwin revealed, and even the Vatican has recognized evolution through natural selection as a scientific fact. Hell, if they can get over Copernicus and Galileo revealing that the Earth was not the center of the universe, then they can get over anything.
There are a handful of truly great scientists in western history: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Watts and Crick, and in my opinion Hawking. For me, Darwin takes the prize as the most important. He took mankind off of it's pedestal, and placed it in it's proper place among all of it's cousins. He revealed the largest Truth ever unveiled to us - and that's pretty damned cool.

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