Thursday, 12 February 2009

Darwin Day

As I described in my previous post, I've not been in quite the right frame of mind for blogging these last few days, my thoughts have been elsewhere. So my planned post for Darwin Day has been deferred as I've not put in the necessary reading. But I still wanted to mark the occasion. Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Darwin Day is "a global celebration of science and reason" held around Darwin's birthday each year. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species...". At work we celebrated with Darwin-themed cakes and a few candles. But I said I'd blog today... can I come up with something interesting on the fly?

After all these years, how does society regard the legacy of Darwin? That's what I wanted to cover. I could list the essential contribution of Darwin's ideas to the development of modern biology and analyse Theodosius Dobzhansky's assertion that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I could debate the future for evolutionary thinking and science in the US under the new Obama government, challenged as it is by the creationist and intelligent design lobbies. But so many others have written good, thoughtful posts on these topics already and here, in the last couple of hours of Darwin Day in Australia, I don't have the time to come up with any deep thinking or novel insights of my own. So I'll turn, as do so many of my generation (and so many of my students) to Google for some insight. I've just this moment performed a Google search for "Charles Darwin". If anything will reflect the popular legacy of Darwin today it will surely be the top ten hits I get on Google... right?

First up is a news story from the Telegraph in England. Darwin's home, Down House, is re-opening to the public on Darwin Day, following renovations. So Darwin is sufficiently well known and interesting that people will travel and spend money to see where he lived. I guess that is nothing surprising, but perhaps encouraging for Darwin fans to know that people care.

Second is Wikipedia, of course. But Google anything today and you will surely get a Wikipedia entry in the first few hits, so not much to glean from this.

Next is This is one of many websites dedicated to the man. Here you can find info on his life, his travels, his writings and people he knew and worked with. Today the homepage is decorated with a birthday cake and balloons. I wonder if he would have appreciated the thought?

Fourth is a biography of Darwin at Lucidcafe. It is short but seems to cover the basics well as far as I can tell at a glance and there are plenty of related links.

Fifth is a link to a list of blog posts on Darwin. This doesn't surprise me, especially today, as he pops up everywhere in the blogosphere, in scientific blogs and in blogs on what I shall simplistically refer to as "evolution vs religious fundamentalism". Likewise, the sixth is a link to a list of Darwin's books. Again, no great surprise.

Finally, the seventh hit, we get to that wonderful resource: The complete work of Charles Darwin online. Want to know what Darwin wrote about something? Look here. It's open access and it does what it says on the tin, with a handy user guide.

In eighth and ninth are two more brief biographies and in tenth a link to "On the Origin of Species..." on Google Books.

So, most of the top ten hits are either biographical links or academic links to Darwin's writings. I like this. Darwin was an academic and it seems only correct that the top ten hits (realistically this is as far as many people will look) include so many links to the works of the man himself. Amongst all the serious scholarship, so much rubbish is written today about what "Darwinism" really is that it can be hard for those new to evolutionary theory to figure out which sources to trust. So where better to start than with what he actually said. Then take it from there.

Out of interest I scrolled through a few more pages of results and found mostly more of the same. A mention perhaps to the Charles Darwin Foundation for science in the Galapagos at number 12, and Charles Darwin University in Australia at number 15. Nice to see his name is out there still.

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