February 12, 2006

Celebrating Darwin Day: Many happy returns

Here's the official Darwin Day website, with all sorts of links to and about Charles Darwin and his Origin of the Species.

It includes links to an essay about Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought from Scientific American. All sorts of interesting things in the Essays section, including an essay by by Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins and University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne on why not to accept intelligent design in the classroom; and on Undoing Darwin, an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

No longer on the Darwin Day website but worth digging around for at Google is the great Verlyn Klinkengborg's New York Times column from last summer, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution:
It's been approximately 3.5 billion years since primeval life first originated on this planet. That is not an unimaginable number in itself, if you're thinking of simple, discrete units like dollars or grains of sand. But 3.5 billion years of biological history is different. All those years have really passed, moment by moment, one by one. They encompass an actual, already lived reality, encompassing all the lives of all the organisms that have come and gone in that time. That expanse of time defines the realm of biological possibility in which life in its extraordinary diversity has evolved. It is time that has allowed the making of us.

The idea of such quantities of time is extremely new. Humans began to understand the true scale of geological time in the early 19th century. The probable depth of cosmological time and the extent of the history of the human species have come to light only within our own lifetimes.

That is a lot to absorb and, not surprisingly, many people refuse to absorb it. Nearly every attack on evolution - whether it is called intelligent design or plain creationism, synonyms for the same faith-based rejection of evolution - ultimately requires a foreshortening of cosmological, geological and biological time.

Humans feel much more content imagining a world of more human proportions, with a shorter time scale and a simple narrative sense of cause and effect. But what we prefer to believe makes no difference. The fact that life on Earth has arrived at a point where it is possible for humans to have beliefs is due to the steady ticking away of eons and the trial and error of natural selection.
And don't forget to get your Darwin Day stocking stuffers here.

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