Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Toast to Darwin!

by Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, February 12, 2009

Today is the big day. We celebrate that 200 years ago, Charles Robert Darwin was born. Fifty years later he would publish On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, the book that turned biology into a full blown science, giving it the conceptual backbone that supports and gives sense to the whole of biological knowledge.

We celebrate the man, but we must also celebrate the idea (an idea that another man, Alfred Russell Wallace, also had, although sadly he will not receive any tributes: history only remembers first places, not seconds).

Darwin's great idea —natural selection as the mechanism that allows species to change, adapting to their environment— has turned out to be, during these 150 years, very polemic. This is due to three public-relations problems it has.

First off, it's an idea that, although simple —the better adapted organisms inherit their advantages to their descendants, which become predominant in the population— is anti-intuitive. Selection allows advantageous changes, produced by chance and inherited from parents to descendants, to accumulate. The reiterated variation-selection process produces, with time, designs that appear to be the product of an intelligence. It is hard to accept that complex creations such as the wing of a bird or the human brain —and the mind— are the results of a blind mechanism.

Second, Darwin's idea is naturalistic: compared to religion, it gives a completely natural —almost mechanical— explanation to the wonderful variety and amazing adaptations of living beings. To abandon a simple and comforting explanation (creation by a superior being) and substitute it by a natural process can be seen as a threat to religious faith. Maybe it is.

Finally, Darwin's idea is powerful. It's applicable not only in biology, but in economy, computing, cultural studies, medicine, chemistry, engineering, sociology, philosophy… That's why it's been described as "dangerous".

However, no matter the reluctances, today, the importance of this idea is undeniable, and its applications are more important every day. That's why Darwin well deserves that we toast to his memory. Cheers!

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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