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Planet Earth

My Darwin Day Remarks

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFebruary 13, 2006 5:28 PM


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I didn't end up giving my special comments about Charles Darwin at my talk last night; a snap judgment led me to decide that I would be wiser to dive right into my speech given the unexpected format of the event. So instead, I've decided to publish here what I had planned to say at the beginning of my talk. Here goes:

I'm no ace with numbers, so I may mess this up. But it's my understanding that, if he were still alive today, Charles Darwin would be 197 years old. It's hard not to play the game of imagining what he would think of us. I think it's safe to say that, though he might be dismayed by it, he would not be surprised at the ongoing religious rift that's dividing our nation on the subject of evolution.

This Darwin Day, however, I'm not going to overburden you with historically based speculation. Instead, before going into the rest of my talk--and you will hear a talk tonight on The Republican War on Science, I assure you--but first, I hope you'll permit me to use this occasion to tell you a little bit about what Charles Darwin meant to me, and what he means to me, personally.

Growing up, I felt as if I knew the man. That's because my grandfather, another white bearded biologist, used to refer to Darwin as "Chuck" at the dinner table, as in, "Well, I asked Chuck Darwin about that, and he said...blah blah blah." Whatever Darwin was supposed to have said. To a young child like myself, it seemed as if "Paw" and "Chuck" were in constant, enlightened dialogue. And indeed, during my childhood--or at least those parts of it spent with my grandparents in Arizona--Darwin seemed ever with us as we went birding or fossil hunting, or out to the Grand Canyon to see the layers of geological history in cross section.

Unlike eighteenth century naturalists, twentieth century ones like ourselves didn't stand much hope of thoroughly revolutionizing the world through our observations. But nevertheless, I think we shared with Darwin a sense that the observations deeply mattered--that they had a value, that we weren't seeing the world fully enough if we didn't make them.

In fact, today I think I'm at my most Darwinian not when I'm bashing an "intelligent design" creationist--although that's also very Darwinian (or perhaps, Huxleyan)--but rather, when I'm sitting on the D.C. metro, crossing the Potomac on the Yellow Line on one of my many trips to National Airport, and I see my friend the peregrine falcon perched on the railway bridge that runs parallel to the metro track across the water. It's exhilarating to know that I'm probably the only passenger on that train that even knows the peregrine is sitting there. That's what naturalism--what the values of Darwin--give to us. They give us a world that's just a little bit richer, because it is better observed, better studied, better understood.

Fast forward to college: Darwin was, once again, right there along with me. A somewhat disgruntled English major whose future was entirely murky, I took a fascinating and, I think, life changing seminar on Darwin in his historical and modern scientific context, with a young historian named D. Graham Burnett and a young scientist named Aaron Hirsh (who just joined the biology faculty right here at the University of Colorado). Not only did the course help prompt many of those late night metaphysical debates that you somehow seem to outgrow shortly after college. It helped turn me into the creature I am today: A writer fascinated with science and its implications.

My first book, The Republican War on Science, is, I think, a thoroughly Darwinian book in this sense. It starts from the premise that scientific information matters. Truth matters. Observations matter. We can't flinch or turn away from what we are, or what we are doing, to ourselves, to others, to the environment. And indeed, what the values of Darwin--the values of the Enlightenment--teach us is that if we do stare unflinching at the truth about nature, and refuse to let others obscure it from us for their own petty reasons, then the information that we gather in that process will better equip us to shape a future that's far greater and more noble than what we might produce with less knowledge, and less understanding.

Anyway, I hope you will forgive this rather lengthy digression, but it's the first time I've gotten the opportunity to speak at a Darwin Day celebration, and it's something of an important moment for me. And so before getting into the red meat of my lecture, I really wanted to toast my friend Chuck Darwin. Happy 197th, Chuck. And thank you all for listening. Now we shift gears. Let me also add that I was very heartened to read this morning that many moderate Protestant churches stepped up to the plate to defend evolution on Darwin Day. We need to see a heck of a lot more of this kind of thing.

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