Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary biology. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most influential books ever written, On the Origin of Species.
Now, let’s be clear. Evolution is not a theory. What Darwin theorized was the main mechanism that causes it, natural selection. It’s not “the theory of evolution” but “the theory of evolution by natural selection.” Evolution itself is a fact that is literally written in stone and written in every living thing on the planet. It was described long before Darwin, and even the ancient Greeks had an idea of it. What Darwin did was painstakingly put together his minute observations of natural history into a scientific explanation of how species change and diversify over time.
As a biologist I am particularly indebted to Darwin and his contemporaries for elucidating the mechanisms behind evolution. Modern biology is founded on evolution; biology just doesn’t make sense without it. Natural selection is without question one of the most powerful scientific discoveries of all time, and Darwin deserves a place next to the likes of Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of science.
If you saw any television news today you know that there were special celebrations of Charles Darwin, including the unveiling of a statue of him as a student at Cambridge (take that, Oxford!). In fact the celebrations began last summer, commemorating the day Darwin first presented his findings to the Linnean Society, and will continue until the 24th of November this year, the exact date on which On the Origin of Species was published. The Natural History Museum in London has a special website dedicated to Charles Darwin and his discoveries: Darwin200.org. Attenborough fans might enjoy the video on (animal) evolution at the Wellcome Trust’s Tree of Life site. A more thorough treatment of the history of life on Earth is the Tree of Life Web Project, which today is featuring party balloons and an animated gif showing Darwin blowing out a candle on a birthday cupcake! Silly biologists.