Yesterday was 204th birthday of the man who gave us the modern theory of evolution. This year, like each year like the past couple, Charles Darwin's contributions to how we understand our world were marked not only by lovers of science, but with the introduction of a resolution into the House.
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., will introduce H.R. 41, which would "express support for the designation of February 12, 2013 as Darwin Day."
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, an atheist group that pushes for ethics and being "good without God," said in a press release, "The passage of Rep. Rush Holt's proposed resolution in Congress would send a strong message to the world that the United States supports science education."
"Charles Darwin's significant contributions to the advancement of science and our understanding of the world deserve recognition," Speckhardt added.
Rep. Holt, who holds a PhD in physics, explained his proposed resolution in an article published on the Huffington Post website, saying he hoped the day would serve as a "reminder of the need to promote scientific thinking throughout our society."
He compared the world of politics with that of science, giving science the advantage. Politics, he said, "is a fairly constrained, unscientific world." He added, "The inhabitants of that world do not often break new ground. There are not many new ideas ... Science is not like that; it is progressive. Scientists operate on the assumption that through better and better theories drawn from evidence one can have clearer and clearer understanding of how the world works."
As could be guessed by the work of the AHA and its support for Darwin Day, atheists have embraced the scientist. However, Stark argued, Darwin is not the property only of atheists, given that he "was especially motivated to understand and appreciate the almost incredible diversity in the family of man. Throughout his life he sought to relate this appreciation and understanding of human diversity to God's plan for the world."
Indeed, Darwin recognized that his work would cause controversy and even social upheaval. Darwin was therefore cautious in suggesting that humans themselves were the products of evolution from lower to higher forms of life. Nonetheless, he did hint at the concept.
Darwin did not originate the theory of evolution, but discovered the mechanism by which it takes place. Basically, genetic mutations and variations occur in the population of a species. These differences between creatures tend to be a help or a hindrance to survival in nature. If a help, the creatures who possess these differences tend to survive better in nature, while those who do not possess the differences perish. Over time, these differences become more and more prominent in the species. As changes take place over millions of years new species develop.
While Darwin made several mistaken assumptions in his work, the general theory he put forward has been supported by more research.
Since Darwin's time, much has been done with his work. "Social Darwinism," a theory that suggests modern human society is and should be based on competition, and that the losers should be allowed to simply die out, became popular in Darwin's later years. This theory both justified poverty of the lower classes in England and much of the world, as well as justified British and other imperialism as well as lent itself to numerous racial projects.
Darwin, however, kept his hands clean, rejecting social Darwinism as unscientific.
More salient in today's world are the debates around evolution and creationism. In the United States, religious groups have been pushing for the teaching of creationism - or "intelligent design" - in science classes. Proponents of science, however, have been generally victorious in keeping these unscientific ideas out.
Proponents of evolution, such as the atheist writer Richard Dawkins, have pointed out that many religious groups and people could be natural allies with the atheists in fighting for a more scientific worldview. The Catholic Church, the leader of which announced his retirement yesterday, he noted, accept evolution as fact, though they differ with atheists in that they see evolution by natural selection as guided by God. Many other religious groups also embrace evolution as part of God's plan.
The bill has support from Reps. Michael Capuano and Ed Markey, both of Massachusetts, Mike Honda, Calif., Eleanor Norton, D.C., Jared Polis, Colo., and Charles Rangel, N.Y. All are Democrats. The bill was sent to the House science and technology committee.
According to the International Darwin Day Foundation, a federally registered charity, supporters have been pushing for an official Darwin Day since the 1990s. In 2011, Rep. Pete Stark, Calif., became the first elected federal representative to push for federal recognition.