Today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and there is a whole list of things I am not going to do;
I am not going to set aside time to read On the Origin of Species when I get home.
I am not going to write a long ode to Darwin in which I pontificate on how his view of nature changed science and society.
I am not going to stop by any Darwin-themed parties, lectures, or other events.
And so on. I really do not have any special celebratory plans for today at all. Instead I intend to honor the work of Charles Darwin in a different way.
As November 2009 draws to a close we approach the end of what has been informally called the “Year of Evolution”, a 12 month long celebration of Charles Darwin and his work. There have been innumerable lectures, conferences, exhibits, articles, papers, books, and other events or productions launched in honor of Darwin’s influence. It is difficult not to drown in the flood of Darwiniana produced during this year alone, but the whole body of celebratory work pales in comparison to less visible efforts being carried out every day.
I am of course speaking of the tireless work of modern day naturalists to better understand how life on earth came to be as it is now and how it continues to change. The most enthralling aspect of Darwin’s work was that in attempting to solve the “mystery of mysteries”, the origin of species, he also opened new questions that have, in turn, generated further queries. Finding answers is good, but questions are what inspire us to keep working to understand nature. This is the true joy of science. The more we learn, the more fascinating nature becomes.
Hence the most meaningful way to honor Darwin, I think, is to continue to interrogate nature as he did. It is nice to take a break to celebrate now and then, and I am glad many scientists have used the “Year of Evolution” as a springboard to bring discussions of evolution to new audiences, but the highest praise for Darwin comes from ongoing research to which his evolutionary theory is essential.
As a writer and fledgling naturalist there is as yet little of value that I can contribute to our understand of nature. I have more questions than anything else. Yet when I get home tonight I am going to pull books off the shelves and call up papers from my hard drive, just like I do every other night, so that I can follow in the tradition of research that Darwin himself was carrying on. Others willy surely be similarly engaged in their own studies this evening. As we peer under microscopes, peruse the findings of other scientists, run PCR reactions, pick away at fossils, scrutinize the anatomy of an organism, or otherwise busy ourselves, we will all be honoring the legacy of Charles Darwin.