A journey into the eyes and mind of a naturalist.

Happy Birthday Mr. Darwin

Today is Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday.   It really is just any other day but we celebrate it for the life of two important figures in history.  Abraham Lincoln was also born on this exact day 203 years ago.

What have we learned from the lives of these men and how did they influence how we see the world today.  Obviously Abraham Lincoln is responsible for great change in the United States and really the world.  It is quite obvious how he has impacted the world today; we still are the UNITED States of America after all.

Darwin’s contribution to the modern world is much more subtle.  Upon publication of On the Origin of Species is 1859 he shook the very thought of human life.  This idea challenged a world that was predominantly dictated by religious scripture and belief.  The world, according to the mainstream ideas of the time, was a world created for the exploitation of man.  Man is a higher being of divine creation, above all others.  Darwin’s simple idea suggests, to the layman, that humans are nothing more than a product of natural selection, an idea that contradicts the idea of divine creation.

Being a biology teacher I often hear many of the common misconceptions and arguments “against” evolution.  They often include statements that suggest the world is less amazing through the lens of evolution than through divine creation.   I would argue quite the opposite.  Looking at the natural world through the lens of natural selection reveals a dynamic ever-changing world where life is defined by those individuals who are best suited for their particular environment.  What we see from our windows is the very definition of success in every plant, animal, insect and fungus.   Their struggles, interactions and success often go overlooked and unappreciated.  I believe they often go unseen because, for much of the world,  we still view the earth as a source of income, an infinite resource ripe for our exploitation.

Understanding evolution by natural selection humbles the arrogant human mind and reminds us that we to are ultimately subject to those forces that control all life on this planet.  We have advanced to a point that we have exceeded our natural carrying capacity and only exist in our current population due do our own innovation and creativity.   Ultimately, and I do not know when or how, humans too will fail to meet the requirements for success in our environment and become extinct.  This is not a negative but a realistic perspective.  I do not live my life thinking the world is going to end according to some Mayan calendar or other apocalyptic date but rather knowing that ultimately the dynamic world we live in will change.

Science is not simply a collection of facts it is, in my mind, the very definition of human nature.  Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection is one of the best examples of how science has exposed reality.  It exposed reality in that humans are not separate from the rest of the world, we are not the product of divine creation, we are a single member of a 4.6 billion year old experiment called life.  We, as humans, share characteristics will every (not just some) living thing on the planet.  That idea is humbling and compelling.  If humans are going to continue our success I suggest we start to realize that we are a part of that experiment of life rather than the focus.

Next time you are outside look deeper, look beyond the obvious.  Try to see those struggles.  Understand how you affect the world around you and how it affects you.  THINK about your place within the larger ecosystem.   What role do you play?  Do you see the world as an interconnected web in which you are a part?  Or do you see it as a resource available for your exploitation?

Whichever view you have, take a moment and reflect on the simple idea that Charles Darwin proposed over 150 years ago.

Happy Birthday Mr. Darwin.

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