Thursday, February 12, 2009

Charles Darwin: An enduring legacy of ideas and imagination

Happy birthday baby Charles! Two hundred years ago, Charles Darwin was born.

His achievements were outstanding; his science, unmatched. His work transformed our understanding of nature and of ourselves.

He examined the minutiae of nature-the little things of life and life forms. But he also worked on grand ideas such as the abolition of slave trade. He communed with men of high standing and learning. But he also congregated with farmers and pigeon breeders.

Charles Darwin was a quintessential intellectual. He observed, questioned, experimented, incessantly testing and validating his ideas. In 1869, Charles Darwin said to J.D. Hooker "If I lived twenty more years and was able to work, how I should have to modify the Origin, and how much the views on all points will have to be modified! Well it is a beginning, and that is something ….” Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, botanist, explorer and plant collector was a friend of Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin is best known for The “Origin of Species”. This book laid the foundations of modern biology. In this volume, Darwin presented extensive and persuasive evidence that all living beings-including the human types-have evolved from a common ancestor. Natural selection, he wrote, was the driver of evolutionary change. Sexual selection, he argued, was an additional force, responsible for spectacular features like the tail feathers of peacocks and big cars for grown men (useless for or even detrimental to) survival but essential for getting dates.

His other works include “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871) and “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872). I his old age Charles Darwin wrote down his recollections for his own amusement and the interest of his children and their descendants.

As we probe into DNA sequences, we see natural selection acting at the gene level. Our genes bear evidence of our intimate relation with other life forms; from protozoa to ungulates to grains.

Today, advances in research enable us to trace the genetic changes that differentiate us from our primate kin, and demonstrates that significant parts of the human genome validates evolution through natural selection.

It is astounding looking back 200 years, how much Charles Darwin knew, and how far he saw.

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