Thought for Darwin Day, BBC Radio Suffolk
Today is Darwin Day, the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809. In celebrating Darwin Day, those of us who value the great man’s achievements hope to raise awareness of his work. If he were still alive, Darwin would be surprised that it’s still the subject of so much debate.
Like many great scientists and thinkers, Darwin was driven by an intense curiosity from an early age, when he was happiest wandering around the countryside near his home in Shrewsbury, collecting rocks, bugs, beetles and plants. His habit of taking natural history specimens home to study them persisted for the rest of his life.
Darwin came from a wealthy family, so when an opportunity arose to spend five years as a companion to Captain Fitzroy of the survey ship HMS Beagle around South America, he seized upon it. He was in his early twenties and Fitzroy was only twenty-six. The captain’s responsibilities were onerous and naval etiquette dictated that he shouldn’t socialise with his crew, so it could be very lonely on a long voyage. Darwin enjoyed the freedom to explore wherever the ship berthed in return for keeping the captain company. Instead of a gap year, he had five gap years, and we’re all the richer for them.
The voyage opened Darwin’s eyes to the possibility that the scientific orthodoxy of the time was wrong. It was believed that everything in the natural world had been created in the form we now see and that nothing had changed. When Darwin published his research, he called it, “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. He didn’t use the term “evolution” to describe the process he described, but Darwinian evolution theory is now the best explanation we have for the development of life on Earth.
Darwin wasn’t always right, but he didn’t have the scientific tools at his disposal that they do today. He’d have been fascinated to know what’s been discovered since his death, such as DNA and carbon dating, and to examine the theory about how life began in a primordial soup between 3½ and 4 billion years ago, when simple organic compounds were formed.
There is one lesson from Darwin that, so far, humankind has been slow to grasp. It’s that species, including our own, evolve over time in response to changes in their environment and when that environment changes drastically, whether through man-made or natural events, they cannot evolve and become extinct. So, while we celebrate Darwin’s life in science, maybe we should heed the words of one of his admirers, Sir David Attenborough, who wrote, “In our hands lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.”*
* From ‘Life on Earth’, 1979