Darwin Mania!

Journalists devote reams to his 200th birthday – does he deserve it?

The problem with Barack Obama, as I’ve been telling friends in the Bay Area for the last few weeks, is all the comparisons to Lincoln and the subsequent revival of interest in the 16th president. With Lincoln-mania sweeping the nation, and my personal hero, Charles Darwin, sharing Lincoln’s 200th birthday today, where does that leave Uncle Charlie?

Well, as it turns out, no worries on that point. The (probably) most-written-about naturalist ever isn’t going to be overshadowed on this day of days by something like the newfound fascination with the greatest, most eloquent president in U.S. history. Dozens of journalists have committed reams of news space to covering Darwin’s bicentennial over the last month. Charlie Petit at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has done five roundups alone: here, here, here, here, and here. (Take that, Lincoln!)

So why is Darwin the most-written about naturalist ever? Is the new explosion of Darwin-mania really necessary? After all, although he provided a key stimulus to the theory of evolution, he wasn’t the only one. And what he didn’t know – and even more importantly, couldn’t prove – was significant. It is, in fact, remarkable that he was as right as he was.

Which is why one of the best Darwin pieces out right now is David Quammen’s cover in the February National Geographic. Quammen, author of the 2007 book The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, is the best Darwin-expert writer around, and the birthday story, accompanied in the magazine by another good piece on modern evolutionary scientists by Matt Ridley, neatly punctures the mythology of Darwin. NatGeo has been killing lately on the subject of evolution, actually. Quammen had a great piece on the forgotten co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was also profiled this week, amusingly and somewhat defensively, by Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. (Achenbach: “The world will celebrate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, but Wallace had the same idea that made Darwin famous, and he arrived at it independently while collecting insects in the Malay Archipelago.”)

More importantly, Quammen humanizes Darwin by separating the person from the controversy around evolution the idea. Which is the real reason Darwin deserves some editorial hysteria now, and why the most of the stories out there are worthwhile. Polls show that some large number of Americans still doesn’t believe in evolution, depending on the poll, the exact question asked, and whatever it means to “not believe” in something about which, on the main point, there is zero scientific uncertainty.

Whenever the subject of Darwin comes up it seems to incite frothing at the mouth – mention his name online and watch the comment boards fill up as every Internet troll in the world lumbers in to talk about intelligent design and original sin. The problem is that the fixation on Darwin, and the desire to make him into the flag-carrier for this idea, puts too much pressure on one guy to be either the perfect model scientist or the tormented evolutionist who recanted his beliefs. The latter is not true, but still a surprisingly durable myth in American pop culture. I was asked about this, in all seriousness, at a wedding a few months back – did Darwin really change his mind on his deathbed? No. No he didn’t, and where does this stuff even come from, and how do we kill it?

The answer to that: We kill it with excellent, realistic 200th birthday coverage, and clearly, a lot of writers out there have had that idea. The best of the Darwin coverage has been full of innovative takes on the man and his ideas, from Wired’s awesome summary of his life to John Tierney’s odd-but-endearing profile of the man behind the one-man musical, “Charles Darwin: Live & In Concert.”

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!

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Eric Simons is the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession (Overlook Press, 2013), and the editorial director at Bay Nature magazine.