Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Darwin and death

By Martín Bonfil Olivera
Published in
Milenio Diario, June 10, 2009

The game of linking concepts that at a first glance look unrelated can be a good way of keeping one's mind in shape. I was invitated to give a talk about "the death of Darwinism", and that's a good excuse to explore the relations between the life and work of Charles Darwin and the subject of death (since Darwinism is alive and evolving).

Darwin's encounters with death are not few. His mother died in 1817, when he was only eight years old; that forced him to be admitted in a boarding school. Years later, already married to Emma, his cousin and then wife, he had ten children, of which two died very young (not an unsual thing in those times). But the death of his favorite, little Annie, at the age of ten, was no doubt the most traumatic encounter of Darwin with death. So much that it is believed that this put an end to whatever rest of religious faith he had left.

Darwin's own death was not unusual: he was buried in with honors at Westminster Abbey, the place reserved for the great men of England. The excessively austere grave on the floor that marks his resting place contrasts with the nearby grave of Isaac Newton, a kind of mini-Disneyland.

Darwin's ideas are too related to death: they help us to understand, for example, how it emerges.

It turns out that the oldest organisms, composed of only one cell, are immortal. They feed, grow and, when the time is right, they divide in two, but they don't die. Only with the emergence of multi-cellular organisms and sexual reproduction do phenomena like ageing and death emerge; they are the price we have to pay for the capacity of forming more complex organisms.

Apart from helping us to understand death, if Darwin's ideas are used in the wrong way, they can cause death: at the beginning of the 20th century, the development of the pseudoscience of eugenics, which intended to improve human race through Darwinian selection, was a global trend, and gave way to the excesses of Nazism. Even today, the application of Darwinian thinking in social contexts bears this stigma.

The moral of the story is that Darwinism, as any other knowledge, can be used for good or bad. That's why it is convenient to have a good understanding of it.

(translated by Adrián Robles Benavides)

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