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THE EVOLUTION OF CHARLES DARWIN'S REPUTATION

By Dr. Anton Espira

KUALA LAMPUR, MALAYSIA, 13 FEBRUARY 2009 - Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) shares a peculiar type of notoriety with that other megastar of science, Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955). Both are scientists whose name and persona have eclipsed their ideas, and whose contributions and capabilities are often exaggerated for public amusement and political expediency. Luckily for physicists, the basics of Einstein's general relativity are far harder for the layman to grasp than the tenets of evolution, and his ideas have generally been left out of the socio-political debate. Darwin, on the other hand, proposed an idea that was easy to envision in its basic form and far easier to caricature, and his work has been debated, dissected and put to questionable use by experts and charlatans alike for a good century and a half.

Darwin's initial ideas have been modified and built upon in the last several decades to create a more nuanced understanding of life on this planet. Though a lot is still being debated in scientific circles and some questions remain unanswered, there is no doubt that evolution is a process in evidence every day all around us. And yet a significant proportion of the population remains convinced that the cows and chickens they regularly eat were created in a single cosmic event by a benevolent deity. Much of the blame must lie at the feet of our educators and politicians who, being themselves unsure of how we came to be here, would rather spend more time on teaching the journey of the Beagle than the basics of evolution. The result is that our children graduate from high school and university ignorant of the mechanics of a process so basic and omnipresent that it should not even be debated.

Today Darwin has become somewhat of a celebrity and this year marks the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and virtually every corner of the globe, and particularly the British Isles, is staging some kind of circus to mark the occasion. Despite what some may say, Darwin certainly wanted to leave his mark on history. He rushed to publish his long simmering ideas on evolution at the first hint that his contemporary, the less celebrated Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913), had come to similar conclusions. He certainly would have appreciated the attention paid to him today, with, of course, the humility and politeness that becomes any British gentleman.

Darwin wrote well and widely and certainly deserves to be read. His available work consists of letters, travel accounts, an autobiography and several scientific books, and much of his writing is quite personal and very readable and can be enjoyed without having to accept his ideas or engage in debates on evolution. What comes across from reading him is his love for science and his meticulous attention to detail built on a foundation of patience and reflection. And these are virtues that we certainly can celebrate today.

Title photo courtesy of Ars Electronica: Hybrid - Living in Paradox 2005, Linz, Austria

Dr. Anton Espira is a young research zoologist based in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University in Tropical Ecology and writes on science, culture and politics. Dr. Espira last wroteThe Curious Thing about George, Obama's Half-Brother for Culturekiosque.com

BOOK TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
By Steven Mithen

Paperback: 384 pages
Harvard University Press (November 2007)
ISBN-10: 0674025598
ISBN-13: 978-0674025592
$16.95

CALENDAR TIPS: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Rome

Darwin 1809 - 2009
12 February - 3 May 2009
Palazzo delle Esposizioni
Via Nazionale, 194
00184 Roma
Tel: (39) 06 39 96 75 00

East Lansing, Michigan, U.S.A

Richard Dawkins at the Wharton Center
2 March 2009
Wharton Center
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan 48824-1318
Tel: (1) 517 353 19 82

London

Darwin
Through 19 April 2009
Natural History Museum, London
Cromwell Road
London SW7 5BD
Tel: (44) 020 7942 50 00

Darwin Online: Darwin 2009 commemorations around the world

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