Today marks nearly 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809, and Darwin Day events around the world aim to celebrate his scientific discoveries and their positive impact on humanity.
Few scientists are more famous than Charles Darwin—though science is supposed to be about ideas not personalities—and few theories have been more thoroughly investigated than that of evolution by natural selection. And yet nearly 150 years since he published ‘On the Origin of Species,’ Darwin’s “big idea” remains the central organizing theme of biology.
Darwin was not the first person to suggest that species could evolve. In the decades preceding Darwin’s career much debate was generated by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory, which proposed that the mechanism behind evolution was the use or disuse of traits. Though Lamarck’s ideas of heredity never gained traction and have since been discredited, Darwin credited him for suggesting that species changed over time as a result of specific mechanisms. Darwin’s remarkable achievement was working out that mechanism—natural selection operating on heritable variation within a population—without knowing what generated that variation. Ironically, Gregor Mendel discovered the genetic basis of inheritance—showing that parental traits are recombined in offspring—around the same time, though Darwin was unaware of this work.
If you do celebrate Darwin’s birthday, spare a thought for Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection who’s own fame pales in comparison to Darwin’s. Wallace independently came upon the idea of natural selection, based on his experience of the wildlife encountered during travels in the Malay archipelago. The tremendous advantages that arise from sharing scientific knowledge shines out from the story of the discovery of natural selection, as Darwin and Wallace were in fact correspondents, and reviewed each other’s work. It was an essay of Wallace’s that prompted Darwin to finally publish his own work on evolution. The fruits of this early example of data sharing and collaboration clearly demonstrate that open access to scientific knowledge is essential if science is to progress as rapidly as possible, allowing us all to share in the discoveries that scientists make on our behalves.
Universities around the world will be hosting lectures and parties to mark the occasion. Visit the Darwin Day website to find celebrations in your area. If you can’t make it to any of the events, you can honour Darwin every day by doing your part to protect the natural world around us. It has taken many millennia for the great diversity of species that currently exist to evolve, yet humans are making quick work of pushing an unprecedented number of species to extinction. We now face a sixth period of abnormally rapid mass extinction, and we have mostly ourselves to blame. Recent reports reveal that even the Galapagos Islands–Darwin's "living laboratory of evolution"–are under threat from human activity.
So get involved – wish people happy Darwin day, make a toast to science or a scientist that you admire over dinner or down the pub. Or, better yet, choose to live an environmentally conscious life to help reverse the rapid decline in biodiversity, and give aspiring young Darwins a chance to make their own biological discoveries.