Give Darwin himself a computer with Web access and he probably would have gone straight for updates on beetles and their evolution – he was never that interested in his own publicity, but always loved to read about good insect research. Thankfully, San Francisco public broadcasting’s innovative Quest program did a brilliant half-hour on the subject. “I think Darwin started out with beetles, as I did,” says the main subject of the story, professional beetle-chaser/studier (and biologist) David Kavanaugh. “I just never outgrew that phase.” Kavanaugh’s is a great story of evolutionary theory today, with a nod to Darwin, who as a young man was so obsessed with his collection that a friend once drew a cartoon of him riding a giant beetle. There are, for those who’ve got the time and the inclination, tons more similar stories.
But if you’re going to read only one piece, make it this one: Carl Safina’s incisive, dead-on argument for why, for the good of evolution, Darwinism must die. “Making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching,” Safina writes. “So let us now kill Darwin.”
If there’s a theme emerging in the coverage, it’s that Darwin deserves a lot of credit for who he was and what he did – his “towering genius,” as Safina writes – but it should be confined to what he actually did. And the occasion of his birth should be used to celebrate those who came after, as well. There’s plenty of local flavor to stories about modern evolutionary researchers – like Kavanaugh, or the biologists in Ridley’s National Geographic piece, or the researchers mentioned in the Science Times’s piece on the “tree of life”. In Forbes, for example, Sean Caroll praises Darwin – and two centuries worth of adventurous-but-less-heralded scientists.
Carroll’s piece typifies the coverage that doesn’t just celebrate Darwin’s ideas, it celebrates his values: observation, deduction and curiosity, and the wonder and elegance of the natural world. That’s an area with plenty of stuff to cover and plenty of inspiration to be found – and worth celebrating anytime. Which is—to get back to the original question, Is Darwin-mania necessary?—the real point. Does Darwin himself, genius that he was, deserve such coverage? Probably not. But Darwin’s values are hugely important, impossible to understate, and worth every bit of hysteria.
So take today to thank Darwin – not for 150 years of evolution, but for 200 years of inspiring us to look at the great, big world and wonder, Why?
Oh, and a suggestion for what to do to mark the occasion: Read through the coverage, learn a bit more about the naturalist and his legacy, find an event near you (see www.darwinday.org), and, as the Los Angeles Times’s Patt Morrison noted, stick a candle in a cupcake and light it using your evolved opposable thumb.
Happy birthday, Charles!