Happy Darwin Day!

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the biologist (or naturalist, in those days) who first proposed that all species evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection. Today, we see evidence of evolution all around us, and natural selection is the explanation that is most well supported by this evidence. This was certainly not the case 150 years ago when The Origin of Species was first published, but slowly this idea took root in the minds of scientists who couldn’t ignore the evidence all around, whether it be from fossils, genetics, or documented cases of evolution.

But I’m just an astronomer. In our field, stellar and galactic, even cosmological, evolution, refer more to something like “lifetime.” I’ll let the biologists (two examples!) handle the biological details today. To celebrate the holiday, I’ll reminisce on my experience in learning about evolution and natural selection.

When I was 12, I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I had always loved science of all kinds, but by the time I was applying to high schools, I was already hooked on space. It didn’t hurt that the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner rover were doing their thing, and my imagination was totally captured by that*. I was a bit torn between going to Staten Island Technical High School and St. John Villa Academy. There were a number of reasons why I chose Villa, and one was that they were pioneering a new science program, in conjunction with their already established “scholars program,” called the Science Discovery Institute, or SDI. I knew that this would accelerate and expand my education in all areas of science, so I went for it.

The summer before high school marked my entry into teenage years, and also my first summer reading assignments. In addition to the four novels that we had to read for English class, the SDI girls** also had four science books to read. These were Rosalind Franklin and DNA, The Hot Zone, one that’s clearly not memorable enough for me to still own, and The Origin of Species. I decided to tackle the one that was the most difficult first and get it out of the way. With 460 dense pages and some technical-looking chapter titles, I chose Origin. This book took me a whole month to read, leaving a little over a month to get through the seven remaining books for the summer! It seemed dry, technical, nit-picky, and redundant. Even for a book nerd like me, at 13, it was too much to appreciate fully, especially with a deadline. Also, I was already familiar with the concepts of evolution and natural selection from my junior high science classes, so why was the point being drilled over and over again? When I got to school in the fall and we began discussing this book in our Regents*** biology class, it became clear that I was the only one in the class who sat down and muddled through the whole thing. Nevertheless, we had a great class discussion, and I’m sure there was some assignment attached, and we moved happily on with the basis of modern biology under our collective belt.

Biology was never really my “thing” although I would put it at a close second behind physics (which includes astronomy). I never lost the curiosity about the living things in the natural world. A later assignment in my SDI work was to visit the American Museum of Natural History and write about a number of exhibits, including the Hall of Human Evolution. I’ve been in love with that exhibit to this day, most recently dragging my friend Monti through it last summer. I even picked up The Journey of Man on a recommendation from one of the staff scientists, though I have yet to find time to delve into it. Only more recently, thanks to bloggers like the ones linked above, have I begun to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of evolution and natural selection, and I’ve been truly awed at the complexity and interconnectedness of it all, as well as fascinated by the scope of ongoing research. Evolution and natural selection are at the heart of who we are as a species and how we got here on this planet. It is an important factor in the search for life on other worlds. And it allows us to understand the variety and breathtaking beauty of life forms on this planet. (For an example, just go watch an episode of Planet Earth!)

I’m going to turn to an astronomer, Carl Sagan, for a classic illustration of our origins through evolution:

There is something wonderfully beautiful in that simply illustrated clip.

So I’ve come a long way in my understanding of evolution and Darwin’s great contribution to science. Maybe one day I’ll reread Origin and have a much great appreciation for the prose with my more mature outlook on the scientific method.

But just for today, I want to say, “Thank you and Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin!”

* And now, you know about how old I am!
** That’s right, I went to an all-girl Catholic high school. Get out your giggling now.
*** Oh yes! I just made all the New Yorkers cringe. Mwah ha ha.

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