On February 12, 1809, two great men were born. One became the 16th president of the United States of America, freed the slaves and changed the hopes and lives of millions — the other wrote what is considered to be one of the greatest books ever published.
I will let others celebrate the life of Abraham Lincoln — I wish to share the celebration of the birth and works of Charles Darwin (he too opposed slavery, by the way). On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, published 150 years ago (Nov. 24, 1859), is perhaps alone among scientific works because it remains relevant today and provides the framework for all biological investigation.
As a young man just returning from a journey to South America, Darwin began to realize that one species does change into another. This realization formed the early underpinnings of one of his now famous phrases, “descent with modification.” His experiences during the five-year voyage on the Beagle provided the empirical basis for his theory of evolution.
Darwin made four simple observations: individuals vary from one another; some variation is passed to offspring; more offspring are produced than can survive; and because survival and reproduction are not random, those who reproduce the most are naturally selected to succeed in their environments.
He spent 20 years gathering the evidence to support his central theory of descent with modification by means of natural selection. Because of his theological training at Cambridge and the powerful influence of the Church of England, Darwin anticipated backlash to his ideas. He was not wrong — nor was he incorrect when he anticipated that publication of the Origin would provide the basis for “far more important research.”
Charles Darwin was a remarkable man — he published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from barnacles and coral reefs to the descent of man and the expression of emotions in humans and animals. Most of his scientific work has withstood the test of time, but nothing outshines his magnificent contribution to the theory of evolution.
Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin. It is most fitting to many that the Church of England is also celebrating his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species.
Henry Mushinsky is a professor of integrative biology at USF.