198 years ago, Charles “Chuck D.” Darwin was born to an English physician who had married into the family famous for Wedgwood china. Halfway around the world, in a log cabin on the frontier, young Abraham Lincoln was born. Those two births changed the world, bringing forth a set of ideas that changed how we all see the world.
Darwin’s idea was simplicity itself, once he recognized it. Animals and plants all differ, and those differences are passed from generation to generation. Some of that variation improves an animal or plant’s prospects in life, other variations limit the prospects of an organism. The ones that survive will pass on more of the beneficial variations, and over time this will change a species. This idea, natural selection, was the same as the tool used by animal breeders to produce new varieties of domestic animals. What Darwin recognized was that the difference between a variety and species was a matter of degree, not a hard limit.
He recognized that this idea could be controversial, and spent decades carefully gathering evidence. His famous work On the Origin of Species, was put together hurriedly as an abstract of the argument; he continued writing his “Big Species Book” until he died.
The controversy surrounding his ideas has not died, but for a while, it will be senescent in Kansas.
Tomorrow, the day after Darwin’s birthday, the Board of Education will remove scientifically inaccurate standards for science education, replacing them with accurate and honest standards. Biology teachers need no longer feel obliged to misinform students, and need not fear telling them the truth about what we know of the origin of new species. At least until the next elections.
The victory science will win tomorrow, like the one it achieved in Dover two Decembers ago, comes in no small part from the life and works of Abraham Lincoln, Darwin’s birthmate. The guarantee of every citizen’s right to vote was established by Lincoln, though it took another century for that to be implemented. The incorporation of the First Amendment to cover actions by state and local governments, not just federal actions, rests on the 14th amendment, a crucial part of Lincoln’s legacy, and a vital tool in the ongoing fight for equality that both Lincoln and Darwin were leaders in. Darwin too was an active opponent of slavery and social inequality, though his mark was made in a different field.
In his own way, Darwin emancipated the sciences. By producing a coherent theory that unified biology, he established biology as a theoretically sound and intellectually exciting science. Lawrence Summers (via Brad Delong) is right to say that “If the 20th century was defined by developments in the physical sciences, the 21st century will be defined by developments in the life sciences.” It will be Darwin’s century, a century in which his ideas will be the strong bedrock on which great inventions are built.
Darwin also struck a blow for the independence of science as an enterprise. His work was largely a response to William Paley’s natural theology, an entwining of science, philosophy and religion that many regarded as unavoidable. Darwin showed that science could stand on its own, and philosophy and theology could stand or fall on their own.