Seven Reasons Why We Should Celebrate Darwin’s Day

Seven Reasons Why We Should Celebrate Darwin’s Day

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Wednesday, February 12, 2020 06:00 AM IST
Seven Reasons Why We Should Celebrate Darwin’s DayCharles Darwin 
  • Charles Darwin needs to be celebrated not only for where he took science, but where he took humanity.

To honour the British naturalist’s memory, Darwin’s Day is celebrated on 12 February. In celebrating this day, society resolves to respect pluralism, protect bio-diversity and reassert the oneness of humanity.

If you are looking for a reason to celebrate Darwin today, here are seven:

1. Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) the British born naturalist discovered a process called natural selection. In doing so, he uncovered one of the most profound basic processes of the universe.

This process, which the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls an algorithmic process, can happen anywhere provided there are self-replicators with variation.

Though the word 'scientist' in popular imagination often always throws the image of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin is equally great through his discovery of natural selection. In remembering Darwin, we remember the process he uncovered and the way he uncovered it.

It is a homage to the greatness of the contemplating and probing intelligence we have been endowed with.

In celebrating Darwin’s Day, we celebrate the discovery of this fundamental process of the universe by a relatively young species evolved in a small planet rotating around a mediocre yellow star in one of the countless galaxies.

2. Darwin insisted on the basic unity of all life and also underlined the importance of the diversity of life.

The importance of variations to natural selection has today made us aware of the importance of variation and differences.

When astronomer Carl Sagan stated the following words he essentially underlined the Darwinian perspective about the need to nurture and value differences as seeds for the possible future adaptations by our species:

Unless we destroy ourselves utterly, the future belongs to those societies that, while not ignoring the reptilian and mammalian parts of our being, enable the characteristically human components of our nature to flourish; to those societies that encourage diversity rather than conformity; to those societies willing to invest resources in a variety of social, political, economic and cultural experiments, and prepared to sacrifice short-term advantage for long-term benefit; to those societies that treat new ideas as delicate, fragile and immensely valuable pathways to the future.

In celebrating Darwin’s Day, we remind ourselves to respect pluralism and the need to resist monocultures of the mind.

3. Often Darwinian evolutionary process is confused with 'Nature, red in tooth and claw' a phrase already popular long before Darwin.

Alfred Tennyson popularised it by pitting it against the ‘law of love’ of god.

The process Darwin uncovered was not about the so-called 'law of the jungle' as mere competition and killing and weeding out of the so-called weaklings.

The confusion was further reinforced by the addition of the term 'survival of the fittest' — a term coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer.

For Darwin himself the word ‘fittest’ meant not the ‘strongest’ but that which adapts.

Darwinian evolution is inherently opposed to social Darwinism, a pseudo-scientific justification for racism and colonialism.

So, in celebrating Darwin’s Day we reassert the oneness of humanity which is fundamental and biological.

4. Darwinian science shows how it is open and not a closed dogmatic system of belief. When Gregor Menedl, an Austrian Catholic monk, came out with his patient experiments, which uncovered for us the laws of genetics, his work was initially ignored and later rediscovered.

In a rhetorical way, one can say that if Darwinian evolution talks about how species got formed, Mendelian genetics talks about how species remain almost the same.

But no Darwinian ever called for the suppression of Mendelian genetics. No Darwinian ever called for imprisoning geneticists and burning the textbooks on Mendelian genetics.

In our own times Marxist state did. It ran an inquisition against geneticists because its ideological commissars found in Mendelian geneticists ‘bourgeois science’.

So, in celebrating Darwin’s Day we also celebrate the openness needed in the pursuit of truth in any domain — art, science or philosophy.

5. Darwin pointed out that humans are more a branch in the tree of life than an apex. So evolution to Darwin was a tree branching out than a linear ladder or a pyramid. This has a spiritually humbling effect on the human arrogance which always wants to place its small self at the centre of the universe.

Darwinian science has thus increased our empathy for fellow organisms which inhabit the planet.

It is indeed a homage to Darwin that Jane Goodall could transcend the species barrier and discover in chimpanzees some of the features which we have been reserving for our own species as its defining character — tool-making.

Today, we are discovering that we share quite a lot of features, from tool-making to self-awareness, with not only chimpanzees but also quite a lot of other organisms.

So in celebrating Darwin’s Day, we also celebrate an evolutionary empathy with all our biological cousins and common ancestors.

6. Darwin’s natural selection as the basic underlying process of evolution makes us aware how dynamic our interaction with the environment is and how it has shaped our deep evolutionary history.

The metaphor of the ‘web of life’ attributed to Chief Seattle (in a speech made in 1854 five years before the publication of the Origin of Species but with the English version published only in 1880s) actually makes sense with Darwinian evolution.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things are connected. 
Attributed to Chief Seattle (speech made in 1854) but questioned.

As stated earlier we are a branch in the tree of life, and what we do to the other branches have consequence to us as an integral branch in the tree.

Today, with drop in bumblebee population getting linked to climate change and of the hundred crops which supply 90 per cent of world's food, 71 of them are dependent on bees for pollination.

In other words, whenever we injure any branch we weaken our own branch in the tree of life.

So, in celebrating Darwin’s Day, we also celebrate the ecological wisdom of the need to protect biodiversity that has dawned upon us.

7. Darwinian science provides insights into quite a lot of problems.

Evolutionary scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) famously said: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

From discovering new vaccines to understanding the planetary pathways — cycles of matter and energy, evolution is needed to understand the dynamics of planet in which we live.

Today, we see a qualitatively different evolutionary process. It has made our worldview and our own place in what can be called the bio-cosm, quite wonderful even if it removed us from the juvenile fantasy of us being the centre of universe.

From the interaction of lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere arises biosphere which in turn is constantly interacting with them and from biosphere human evolution creates noosphere — a term coined by heretical Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.

Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Vladimir Vernadsky and Teilhard de Chardin — they all show us that evolution after Darwin has deepened our spirituality while destroying juvenile superstitions of a creator-deity.

So in celebrating Darwin’s Day we also celebrate the spiritual leap that humanity has taken by transforming the old myths into poetry and inner symbolism rather than taking them as literal truth.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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