Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Darwin: A really cool guy

Today is Darwin Day. Charles Darwin was born on Feb. 12 1809, making this his 199th birthday.

For the moment, let's put aside all thoughts of the current cultural battles over evolution. Instead, I'm going to talk about the man. My main source material is Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species which are available online.

Darwin was a really cool guy. I'd even say he's better than Newton or Einstein. Coming from a physics guy, that's quite a compliment! Seriously though, Newton is known for being antisocial, and Einstein is known for stubbornly rejecting Quantum Mechanics (the other physics revolution around the same time as Relativity). But when I look at Darwin, I see a model scientist.

Voyage of the Beagle

The most well-known part of Darwin's life was his voyage on the Beagle. He went on the voyage to accompany Captain FitzRoy, since it was improper for the captain to socialize with his insubordinates. But Darwin took this opportunity to do all sorts of adventuring. And did Darwin have adventures! Darwin had a habit of not only observing nature, but interacting with it, and forming new theories about it. Who can forget that time he hit an idle fox with his geologic hammer?1 Or the time he discovered a new species of ostrich (which was named after him) only after having eaten it?2 Oh, and the Galapagos lizards!
...when [the lizard is] frightened it will not enter the water. Hence it is easy to drive these lizards down to any little point overhanging the sea, where they will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump into the water.
I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide; but it invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood.3
Darwin's lizard-tossing ways stemmed from his child-like curiosity about nature, along with his scientific search for explanations. This is why Darwin is cool.

Much of Darwin's voyage also involved interacting with the indigenous people. Since this is from a less enlightened time, the characterizations are quite painful. Darwin observed the "savage" peoples almost as if they were animals. However, he was anti-slavery, and we see glimmers of enlightenment as in the below example.
I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.4
The Origin of Species

Perhaps influenced by his voyage, Darwin later came across the idea of natural selection. But he delayed publishing his work because he was acutely aware of the controversy that it would provoke. Instead, he spent years and years accumulating more evidence to make his case stronger. Truly, this is how a scientist reacts to controversy: by collecting evidence! Darwin was actually very afraid of the controversy that would ensue, and delayed publication for twenty years. Only when a friend, Alfred Russel Wallace, had come across the same idea, did Darwin choose to publish.

Origin of Species is actually very well written. Well, admittedly, it's a little dense, mostly because Darwin is always putting in phrases like "seems to me," "perhaps might," and "quite conceivable." This is the language of someone who wants to avoid overstating his case. Darwin very clearly states all the observations and reasoning he has in favor of his theory, as well as all the flaws, and his responses to these flaws. Darwin was, of course, wrong on many points (hilarious examples: flatfish trying to twist their eyes5, stags with one antler6, fish traveling by whirlwinds7), but such a large scientific theory could scarcely have had a better start.

Oh, and he's poetic too! Below is the famous passage at the end of his book.
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.8
Happy Darwin Day!

And check out this awesome artwork, thanks to Travis Morgan.
And more artwork? From cpurrin.
And there are other people talking about Darwin Day too! Click on the picture below.

I encourage you to find the passages I refer to!
1. VotB Ch 13
2. VotB Ch 5
3. VotB Ch 17
4. VotB Ch 2
5. OoS Ch 7
6. OoS Ch 5
7. Oos Ch 13
8. OoS Ch 15


Anonymous said...

I really have got to read those. He really loved his science, and it shows in his writings.

DeralterChemiker said...

I am delighted by your appreciation for Darwin's theory of evolution. Can you comment on probable reasons for the rejection of this theory by so many nonscientists, while other scientific theories have met few objections? I don't think that it can be attributed solely to the appearance of conflict with the Biblical account in Genesis, since the same people have blithely rejected many other passages in the Bible with no qualms. Can it be a visceral reaction to the origin of man and the feeling that this diminishes us in importance?

miller said...

I don't really know why so many people reject it. You probably have much better idea.

My guess is that people feel it is unappealing as an origins story--it suggests there is no well-defined distinction between humans and other animals, and that nature is all about "survival of the fittest". My second guess is that it's because of all the propaganda that's been put out there by anti-secularists.

If you asked some of the atheists around the internet this question, they'd say it's because most religious know that evolution is fundamentally incompatible with a benevolent god. I tend to disagree on this point...