But no, I have other fish to fry. In celebration. I’m frying celebratory fish here, because it’s Darwin Day!
Yes, February 12 is a holiday to some, though not a federally listed one. There are some who are fighting courageously to make it so, and I mean, why not? We do have federal holidays for some… Less wonderful people.
Now, Darwin was a pretty great guy, who gave us a pretty great idea (Natural Selection), and both are pretty misunderstood in today’s society, even by some of their supporters.
Obviously, nothing I say here is going to go a long way toward fixing that. What I would like to do, however, is draw your attention to how much we owe to this guy. Consider this a tip of the hat to CWR’s Fame Days of yore. So, what good has Charlie Darwin done you?
1. He’s shaped modern medicine for the better.
Yes, the guy who played around with finches in the Galapagos is hugely critical to modern medicine. Why? Well, because bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc. are all living things that undergo natural selection. Because an understanding of natural selection has been incorporated into medicine, we can better understand how diseases spread and adapt. We’re able to predict and circumvent the widespread development of antibiotic immunity in common bacteria. We’re also better able to understand genetic diseases and how/why they persist. Take, for example, sickle cell anemia, a condition that has remained rampant in parts of the Third World. Why does such a detrimental genetic condition stick around, when it so obviously causes severe health problems? Well, it turns out that it simultaneously conveys an advantage in regions where malaria is rampant, because it actually results in an immunity to malaria! Turns out, that’s advantageous enough to actually keep it around naturally.
2. He’s contributed to the ethical treatment of animals.
Like it or not, Darwin’s big revelation has brought with it a widespread realization that we, too, are animals. It may not level the playing field, exactly, but this framework has contributed to more widespread concern for the welfare of our fellow earth-dwellers, and has brought about legislation protecting a wide variety of organisms across the globe. This is why dog/cock fights are illegal, or why researchers using lab animals have to jump through numerous hoops to get clearance for their experimentation. As a society, we work harder to treat animals well because we can better grasp our kinship with them. They don’t exist for us, they exist for themselves, just like us.
3. He’s contributed to improvements in your food supply.
I am well aware that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a very controversial topic (one I hope to address in the near future), but let me assure you, they can be really great. Many GMOs have been given pest-resistance through modification, drastically boosting yields and improving our overall food output. Thing is, those populations of pests munching on our crops are also capable of adaption, like the bacteria mentioned above. Thanks to our understanding of natural selection, we have mandates in place that require farmers to also plant “buffer crops” of unmodified plants, to reduce the severity of selection for pests that are immune. So, just as we’ve been able to avoid the production of a “super bug,” we’re also spared the rise of some Old Testament-scale plague insects busting through our farmlands. Hallelujah.
4. His ideas are an integral part of keeping our planet healthy.
Conservation and restoration are a big deal. Thankfully, our society is becoming increasingly aware of this. The living things of this world are all remarkably interdependent upon one another, and that includes you and I. So when we start tipping the scales for ourselves, that affects the rest of the system, and that lack of balance is ultimately bad for everybody. Enter the scientists. We do our best to understand how all the various beings of this planet compete and cooperate, so that we can both prevent the generation of future imbalances and rectify the mistakes of the past. Turns out, natural selection is the best framework for understanding how to do that. It helps us to understand the intricate dance of how different species use our shared resources, when they can adapt to change, how much change they can handle… The list goes on.
And really, I could go on. Darwin’s theories have played a huge part in the development of biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, philosophy, economics, religion… There are very few aspects of human thought that he hasn’t impacted. Granted, much of his impact has generated significant controversy, and I’ve specifically avoided as much of that as I can in this post. It’s always good to step back from time to time and celebrate common ground. So for now, on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, let’s celebrate the ways in which he’s contributed to making us healthier, more conscientious, better fed, and environmentally more sustainable beings.