There is no student of nature in all of history who is as well-documented as Charles Darwin. While the paper trail that chronicles the private thoughts of important researchers like Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen is often frustratingly thin, reading the entirety of Darwin’s books, papers, and correspondence could easily become a full-time job. Beyond the importance of his ideas we celebrate Darwin because his life is open for us to examine, the story of how a young believer in Creation set sail for a journey around the world that would ultimately spark a scientific revolution. There is scarcely a more romantic narrative about the scientific journey of discovery than Darwin’s, a reality that makes his accomplishments all the easier to celebrate.
Festivities will kick into high gear next year as it will be the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the abstract of what was to be a much longer technical work called Natural Selection. (As some historians have suggested rushing On the Origin of Species into print may have been better for getting the public interested in evolution than if Darwin had waited to complete his technical tome. The abstract was more accessible, and therefore influential, than anything that would have circulated in the scientific realm alone.) As Olivia Judson notes, however, the importance of July 1, 2008 should not be ignored for that day will mark the 150th anniversary of when the short summaries of natural selection by both Darwin and A.R. Wallace were read before the Linnean Society. I am going to write up something for the event, even though it seems as if I had just written something about how grand natural selection is. (In fact, I did for Darwin Day.).
Next year will be a big year for evolution. A slew of books about evolution will be published, the replica of the HMS Beagle will set sail, the “Year of Evolution” will continue in Philadelphia, and at least two feature motion pictures will come out featuring different aspects of Darwin’s life (Evolution’s Captain and Origin [previously Annie’s Box]. And that’s just for starters. I’m excited about many of the events, but I do have to wonder if we’re going to suffer from a Darwin overload. I think the diversity of events will help keep things from being too repetitive, but I do hope that there will be events focusing on how our understanding of evolution has changed since Darwin’s time, too. If we concentrate too much on Darwin it may appear that the state of evolutionary science is stuck in the 19th century, something that is certainly not true.
I don’t think there is much to worry about, and I am definitely looking forward to scientists taking a more active role in engaging the public about what evolution is and why it is important. We shouldn’t have to wait for an anniversary of an event to do it, but it would be foolish not to take advantage of the global events that will be occurring to celebrate Darwin’s work and how much we’ve learned since. If I’m lucky I might be making my own contribution to the festivities in the form of my book, but even if not I’m still looking forward to seeing what comes of all the evolution-related events of 2009.