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Celebrating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth

Each Feb. 12, I celebrate the birthdays of three people who mean much to me: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and my father. Two of those three were born on the same day exactly 200 years ago. Thus, we honor the bicentennial of the births of Lincoln and Darwin.

Lincoln will surely be celebrated elsewhere; I devote this column to Darwin. Interestingly, this is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his controversial "On the Origin of Species."

At least 15 books about Darwin have already been published this year. One, "Charles Darwin" (Kingfisher) by Alan Gibbons, is an inexpensive book suitable for children aged 9-12, which provides a cabin boy's perspective on the HMS Beagle's scientist.

Another, "Charles Darwin: Evolutionary Writings (Oxford)," is edited by James Secord and contains extensive excerpts from Darwin's "Journal of Researches" (which we know today as "The Voyage of the Beagle," to me the finest travel narrative ever written), "On the Origin of Species," "The Descent of Man" and his autobiographical essays.

Each essay is accompanied by the reactions of reviewers of the time. Here you will find, for example, Frederick Douglass responds to "The Descent of Man" with "I have no sympathy with a theory that starts man in heaven and stops him in hell."

We have come far since that early mix of reactions. Today, it is difficult to find scientists who don't consider evolution fundamental to their work. The British journal "Nature" invited people from around the world to comment on what it called Darwin 200. Here are some of their responses:

Michael Lynch, Indiana University: "A lot has happened in the last 150 years, and the basic theoretical framework of evolutionary biology is rock solid. There is not a single observation in cell, molecular or developmental biology that has caused a ripple in our basic understanding of evolutionary principles."

Ismail Serageldin, New Library of Alexandria, Egypt: "Copernicus knocked out the centrality of Earth in our view of the Universe, and Darwin knocked out the special status of humans as a species in the diversity of life on this planet. Both were vilified and attacked by bigots. Both played a central part in allowing us to understand the reality of where we live and who we are."

Per-Edvin Persson, Finnish Science Centre: "I dream that the majority of the world's population will understand that evolution is the process by which the diversity of life is maintained on this planet. We would know this has happened by witnessing a diminished number of attacks on science, and the theory of evolution in particular, from non-scientific sources."

Niles Eldredge, American Museum of Natural History in New York: "Biological phenomena that bear on evolution occur at such a mind-boggling spectrum of spatio-temporal scales that communication -- hence integration -- is harder now than it was in Darwin's day. Darwin himself may have been the last to have had an adequate grasp of the geology, paleontology, zoology and botany of his day, to be able to frame something like a unifying picture."

Ulrich Kutschera, University of Kassel, Germany: "I hope that, by the end of 2009, Darwin's classical theories as well as his philosophical imperative -- the strict separation of scientific facts from religion -- will be accepted by the general public."

Randolph Nesse, University of Michigan: "Two recommendations are achievable in the Year of Darwin. First, national scientific organizations should convene groups to recommend steps that will bring evolutionary biology fully to bar on problems of human health. Second, all schools of medicine, nursing and public health should adopt policies to ensure that their students and researchers are able to use all the tools and concepts evolutionary biology provides."

Mustafa Akyol, Turkish Daily News columnist: "I would rather expect to see more from scientists who think that evolution is compatible with their theistic faith."

Mel Greaves, Institute of Cancer Research, England: "I would like to see both clinicians and epidemiologists recognizing that vulnerability to common diseases of affluent societies, such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and age-linked degenerative conditions, is a bequest of our evolutionary history -- as mismatched with our modern lifestyles."


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