International Darwin Day; a global celebration of science and humanity. The day looks to inspire people from all over the world to reflect and act on principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity and hunger for truth as embodied by Charles Darwin. Professor Helen Rogers writes why the work of Darwin, even now, does such an inspirational job of summing up the importance of both scientific bravery, and beauty, in a message that is so pertinent for today.
To be successful as a scientist one needs to be brave!
…I know this as a scientist who has worked on problems such as the Polar Ozone Hole and Climate Change. You need to stand up for truth and be prepared to face the sceptics and naysayers. You need to clearly present the scientific facts obtained through detailed and robust research. You need to be like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace when they first published their scientific theory in 1858, on the branching pattern of evolution resulting from a process they called natural selection – brave!
Although during the 1860s most scientists agreed that evolution had occurred amongst species, only a minority supported Darwin’s view that the main mechanism was natural selection. Throughout the remainder of Darwin’s life he would fight against both the religious and scientific opposition of others, always remaining strong to his scientific research and conclusions. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1930 (almost 50 years after Darwin’s death) that Ronald Fisher proposed a mathematical approach to Darwin’s theory, bringing scientific consensus that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution.
So is this historical work of value in today’s society? I would most definitely say ‘yes’, and perhaps now more than ever. As we look to a world that is often hierarchal and prejudiced, we should recall that Darwin was a staunch opponent to slavery and through his encounters with the native people of South America, was convinced that, despite our diversity, all humans are interrelated with a shared origin. As I look to my own research, I hope that we will not need to wait 50 years for our theories on climate change to be accepted. If we do the result will be permanent, irreversible damage to our planet, with climate change occurring at a speed greater than evolutionary response.
Published on the 22nd November 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species sums up both scientific bravery and beauty in a message so pertinent for today. ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.’