It's Darwin Day, a celebration of science and reason

February 12, 2014 by Rob Brooks, The Conversation
Charles Darwin in 1868. The white-bearded patriarch that haunts every creationist and reason-denier. Credit: Julia Margaret Cameron, Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Darwin Day! Is that even an appropriate thing to wish somebody? Especially so close to Valentine's day?

Darwin Day, according to the International Darwin Day Foundation, is "a global celebration of science and reason held on or around Feb. 12, the birthday anniversary of Charles Darwin". The idea of the celebration arose in 1993 as part of the activities of the Stanford Humanist Community, then headed by biologist Robert Stephens. And in the intervening 21 years, it has proliferated, with hundreds of events listed in cities around the world.

I'm not normally one for celebrating birthdays. Kids' birthdays are great fun, of course. And the odd 40th or 50th gives a good excuse for a party. But I know some adults who celebrate every birthday as if it were a surprising stroke of fortune. Some grown adults even see each birthday an occasion to take an entire day off work.

So you can imagine my ambivalence at celebrating the birth, some 205 years ago, of a scientist. Even a scientist as world-alteringly important and as genuinely beloved as Charles Robert Darwin.

As an evolutionary biologist, and a scientist who finds great joy and meaning in communicating with the public, I am thrilled that there is a day around which so many events and seminars can be organised. That these activities celebrate , science, and reason is particularly special.

I laud the work if the Darwin Day Foundation and all the organisations and people who make Darwin Day a highlight for curious, open and intellectually alive citizens. The Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, which I direct at UNSW, has been running a veritable fiesta of the Darwinian, with a conference and public lectures last week, and a seminar by eminent evolutionary psychologist Martin Daly on Tuesday 11th.

But it bears reflecting on the importance and modern relevance of Darwin himself.

The great naturalist ranks among the most important scientists of all time, no less significant than Galileo, Newton or Einstein. But more than that, I agree with philosopher Daniel Dennett who argues that Darwin's Dangerous Idea - the discovery of how works, is the 'most important idea anyone ever had'.

Darwin's discovery revealed the very process that made us who we are. Which is why evolution, and Darwin himself gets so infuriatingly up the nose of those who have the most to lose from a genuine understanding of how the world works and how humanity came to be. Paper over the cracked relationship between science and religion all you like, but natural selection changed everything about how we understand ourselves and our world. Which is why Darwin's Origin of Species was an instant bestseller.

To borrow Dennett's inimitable turn of phrase once again, the idea of natural selection is a "Abraham Lincoln.

And yet, I'd be disappointed if this celebration of all things Darwinian began and ended with the great naturalist. Because I think a focus on the person tends to undersell the science, and the importance of science and reason in general.

Watching snippets of last week's so-called debate between the improbably bow-tied pro-science persona, Bill Nye, and the insufferable Creation Museum director, Ken Ham, I was reminded of just how much the reality-deniers depend on Darwin.

Nye did a creditable job. With the characteristic humility of a true scientist he showed his willingness to admit what he doesn't know. His smug opponent, of course, had all the answers, and they were all to be found in one particular book. Yet I am in the camp who believe Nye did a disservice to science by going mano-a-mano with the Ham actor, lending him false legitimacy, and implying false equivalence between reason and biblical literalism.

It irks me the way Nye, and others who engage with creationists, allow the likes of Ham to call evolution "Darwinism", and those who can comprehend natural selecton and the overwhelming evidence for it "Darwinists". An over-reliance on Darwin as our standard-bearer diminishes a broad and vibrant science, giving the impression it begins and ends with a guy who was born over 200 years ago. I believe the creationists and their dullard adherents go further, implying that one white-bearded gentleman is somehow being slyly substituted for another; Darwin supplanting God.

The beauty of an idea like natural selection is that it is true, whether or not you choose to believe it. It is true, even if nobody has yet had the idea or written it down. If Darwin hadn't done so, Alfred Russell Wallace's version might have swayed the Victorians. Or perhaps a version discovered some 50 years later.

Humanity owes a great debt to Darwin, and the history of science followed the course that it did because of him. But he isn't the reason for the season; science does not need deities and messiahs. Darwin was merely the guy who figured it all out first and explained it to a world who were ready for the idea.

I am delighted to celebrate Darwin's 205th birthday today. But I also think the old guy has done a good job and should not be leant upon like some deity, some final authority, the other 354 days a year.

Explore further: Lost and found: New beetle collected by Darwin 180 years ago published on his birthday

Related Stories

Researchers revise Darwin's thinking on invasive species

December 2, 2013

For more than a century and a half, researchers interested in invasive species have looked to Charles Darwin and what has come to be called his "naturalization conundrum." If an invader is closely related to species in a ...

New book rewrites how evolution was discovered

June 25, 2013

A major new book by historian Dr John van Wyhe from the National University of Singapore has radically rewritten the story of how evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

Recommended for you

Scientists discover new plant in Shetland

August 16, 2017

Scientists at the University of Stirling have discovered a new type of plant growing in Shetland - with its evolution only having occurred in the last 200 years.

The irresistible fragrance of dying vinegar flies

August 16, 2017

Markus Knaden and Bill Hansson, and their colleagues at the Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology, study ecologically relevant odors in the natural environment of insects, especially vinegar flies. In this new study they ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 12, 2014
Just another case of connivery in "science".
Among other things, Darwin was neither "world-alteringly important" nor "genuinely beloved". The only real outgrowth is clinically sociopathic God haters having an "excuse" to pretend God plays no role in the world. In fact, Darwin was newver proved. Speciation has never been seen in real time to exist, and only resin casts called "fossils"{ are offered as "proof" to the gullible that it occurred in the past. Only genetic drift is seen today, and even non "evolutionary" theory accepts that to occur! There is no reason to believe speciation can occur. And, if you want to celebrate "science and reason", why not Newton or Galileo? Because they accepted the Bible! This is not "scientific", only cravenly political! And why "science and reason"? "Science" is supposed to embody reason, they're supposedly not distinct! It's like "evolutionists" condemning "young earth creationism", as opposed to "old earth creationism"!
1 / 5 (3) Feb 12, 2014
How many people have been killed by people using Darwin's beliefs as an excuse?
1 / 5 (2) Feb 12, 2014
Darwin was neither "world-alteringly important" nor "genuinely beloved"
You're right, but in the phrases like "resin casts called "fossils" you're losing an advantage of unbiased view again.
is no reason to believe speciation can occur
But the species still exist and species of fossils are well recognizable too. How the bare genetic shift could explain the smooth transition from fossil species into contemporary ones? Such a species couldn't form - only to extinct, which would mean, that the biodiversity of Earth declines steadily.
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 13, 2014
It amazes me how often idiots with no understanding of science post on this site.
5 / 5 (4) Feb 13, 2014
Darwin was neither "world-alteringly important" nor "genuinely beloved"

But he was one of the first who got his ideas accepted by virtue of argument and painstaking scientific work that was at odds with the belief at the time.
And that without being fried to a crisp by some religious group or other.
In a way he was one of the first (widely known) people for whom scientific discourse actually worked the way it's supposed to - on a then very controversial subject. And that is something well worth celebrating.

It's like winning a battle (which you will find many annual celebrations for all over the world)...just that in his case it ushered in an era of LESS bloodshed in the process.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 13, 2014
The world since Darwin has shed more blood than in all the centuries before.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.