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Jewish Journal

Happy belated birthday, Darwin

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 12, 2009 | 6:08 pm

I missed this editorial observer yesterday on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. (Seems like we’ve been “celebrating” scientific Christmas, and thanking Darwin for his contributions, for the last year.) Verlyn Klinkenborg writes:

Perhaps one day we will not call evolution “Darwinism.” After all, we do not call classical mechanics “Newtonism.” But that raises the question of whether a biological Einstein is possible, someone who demonstrates that Darwin’s theory is a limited case. What Darwin proposed was not a set of immutable mathematical formulas. It was a theory of biological history that was itself set in history. That the details have changed does not invalidate his accomplishment. If anything, it enhances it. His writings were not intended to be scriptural. They were meant to be tested.

As for the other fate of so-called Darwinism — the reductionist controversy fostered by religious conservatives — well, Darwin knew plenty about that, too. The cultural opposition to evolution was then, as now, scientifically irrelevant. Perhaps the persistence of opposition to evolution is a reminder that culture is not biological, or else we might have evolved past such a gnashing of sensibilities. In a way, our peculiarly American failure to come to terms with Darwin’s theory and what it’s become since 1859 is a sign of something broader: our failure to come to terms with science and the teaching of science.

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Darwin recedes, but his idea does not. It is absorbed, with adaptations, into the foundation of the biological sciences. In a very real sense, it is the cornerstone of what we know about life on earth. Darwin’s version of that great idea was very much of its time, and yet the whole weight of his time was set against it. From one perspective, Darwin looks completely conventional — white, male, well born, leisured, patrician. But from another, he turned the fortune of his circumstances into the most unconventional idea of all: the one that showed humans their true ancestry in nature.

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