Thursday, February 12, 2009

Quite A Day

I've already mentioned that today is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. But, across the Atlantic, someone else entered the world on February 12, 1809: Charles Darwin.

Unlike Lincoln, Darwin was not a politician, so one might question his relevance to this blog.

Well, I would venture to guess that Darwin's name gets invoked in political debate more often than that of any other scientist. My wild guess is that a not-very-close second might be J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who worked on the U.S.'s Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, who later lost his security clearance.

Much material has appeared lately, both in print and on television, about the birthday boys, Lincoln and Darwin. Among other topics, those descriptions of Darwin have addressed the contributions that others made, before, during and after Darwin's time, to our understanding of evolution and natural selection. But, for whatever reason, Darwin's is the only name that most people associate with those ideas.

Ever heard of Wallace's theory of evolution? Me neither.

This New York Times article contrasts the treatment of Darwin with that of Isaac Newton. And, while we do sometimes speak of "Newtonian Physics", the "ism" that is Darwinism takes things to a different level.

I wonder whether, in Darwin's 19th century, but not in Newton's 17th, we had already started creating intellectual celebrities in the modern sense. Later, in the 20th century, with wider availability of books, and the advent of television, that phenomenon became common with, for example, such media celebrities as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

Darwin's political impact is mostly felt in the realm of education. What, if anything, should public schools teach about the origin of species? From the "Monkey Trial" of the 1920s, to the "Intelligent Design" arguments of our day, Darwin continues to rock our political world.

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