Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Darwin Day?

[Reposted from Salt City Skeptics]

First: One last reminder about the Salt City Skeptics Darwin Day Spectacular, tonight at Fat's Grill... Okay, now that that is out of the way...

Today is the day that we gather together with our families to celebrate the birth of, you know, some dude... Not a savior or a God or a legend. A man. Is it totally arbitrary for us to have a holiday or festival based around this one guy on this day every year?

Pretty much, yeah. We could have just as easily declared June 22nd "Evolution Day" or October 7th "Heliocentrism Day." We don't celebrate Galileo Day or Jonas Salk day.

So, why Darwin Day?

Darwin was not, as is often mistakenly reported, the first to come up with the idea of what we now call "evolution." The idea that species have changed over time to become other species (including humans) dates back at least to Anaxamander in the 6th century BC.

Indeed, Darwin was not even the first to develop an evolutionary model based on natural selection. That credit goes to Al-Jahiz, an 8th century biologist from what is now Iraq. Al-Jahiz postulated that:
"Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."
That's about as concise a definition of natural selection as I can imagine. And this was 1300 years ago!

But Darwin's own realization about natural selection came at a time when people were eager for knowledge. During the 19th century, enlightenment ideals of free inquiry were coming to fruition, and the way science was practiced was shifting from "armchair philosophy" to a more methodical, procedural method of whittling away at null hypotheses.

Darwin's simple insight was at odds with a growing fire-and-brimstone brand of religion, particularly in the United States. No idea since the Kepler's heliocentric model of the Solar System had so inspired the wrath of religious fundamentalists, who insisted (and continue to insist) that the Genesis creation account was literally true. The rift between what science shows to be true and what Biblical literalists contend has grown and grown in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Speices, a rift that has been exacerbated by developments in astronomy, cosmology, genetics and geology that, time and again, fly in the face of biblical claims.

Darwin himself has thus become a lightning rod of criticism from religious fundamentalists, who maintain that his ideas preclude the existence of a deity. Indeed, religious fundamentalists have attempted to discredit natural selection and evolutionary theory by branding it as a dogma: "Darwinism."

Which calls into focus even clearer the question posed above: Why Darwin Day? Isn't celebrating Darwin playing in to the hands of those who claim that "Darwinism" is akin to religious dogma?

Well, sure. I suppose it is to some extent... But so what? Anyone who "celebrates" Darwin Day surely looks at February 12th as a celebration of science in general, and not a day to worship a mere mortal.

Darwin Day is about what Darwin represents: The scientific enterprise; courageously pursuing knowledge no matter where the evidence leads; challenging notions of our world and universe based on tradition rather than evidence.

That's why Darwin Day.

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