Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Happy Darwin Day!

February 12th, 2009 Posted in Biology, Creationism

Today, as I’m sure you know, marks a very important anniversary – the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin – a man responsible for one of the greatest paradigm shifts in the entire history of science.

How can I possibly do justice to Darwin’s contribution to science? I thought about writing a long monologue on how important his legacy has been, and how staggering the theory he created truly is. Then I thought maybe I should write a list of the reasons why I love this whole area of research so much, and why it excites me more than any other. But you’ll have read that same gushing tribute a hundred times over the last week, and you’re probably sick and tired of it. So I thought I’d do something a little different.

Instead, I’m going to destroy one particular complaint that I often hear levelled against Darwinian evolution; namely, that it makes humanity seem somehow less special and, therefore, that it is a depressing way to think about our place in the Universe. I think the most effective refutation I can give to this dismal view of the theory I love, is by printing the full epilogue to my book, “The Polished Savage” – a tome I decided to name after a comment of Charles Darwin himself. I truly hope you enjoy it.

History is full of epic tales of underdogs who have fought to overcome incredible odds.  For thousands of years, the greatest writers and poets have written passionately about the downtrodden hero, pushed around by his enemies, who eventually builds up the strength to confront those same abusers and win.  I personally think that the most inspiring story for anyone to read is that of the tiny species of rodent, 65 million years ago, whose descendants today include many of the most powerful animals on planet Earth.

Next time you feel threatened by the success of those around you, or you have to deal with hardship and great personal tests, just think about that puny creature, rather like a shrew.  Let’s call it a shree for no particular reason other than that two is followed by three, and it rhymes.  Think about that tiny shree, darting amongst the undergrowth, hiding from predators, never sure when, or if, its next meal would come.

 For much of its evolutionary story, that species of shree was hunted by vicious, eagle-eyed reptiles – dedicated killing machines whose only aim in life was to seek out the shree’s kind and devour them.  But the shrees survived that.  Then a rock the size of a city slammed into the planet, and wiped out virtually everything that lived.  For months, those shrees were scorched, frozen and asphyxiated, but they managed to pull through.  Then they were starved and poisoned, but they fought on undaunted.  When all about them were losing their heads and going extinct, those shrees clung on, holding tightly to that last shred of hope because it was all they had.

 They didn’t know it, but the reason why the shrees existed at all was that their ancestors were all winners.  Thousands of long-forgotten species had survived against all the odds and passed on the genetic secrets of their success through the ages.  Those same secrets taught of how to overcome all manner of hardships that the shrees would encounter in their brief and arduous existence.  They taught the shrees how to avoid danger; how to run, to swim, to forage for food; how to find a suitable mate; how to breed and create the fittest offspring; how to learn about their environment and how to adapt it to their own requirements.

 This pattern of greatness was not passed down through books or tablets of stone, but rather through four simple letters – chemicals – repeated over and over again in a seemingly endless ribbon of knowledge, tightly coiled inside each and every one of the trillions of cells in every single shree.  An invaluable corpus of wisdom gathered over the aeons from every struggle, every hardship, and every victory that life on Earth had known.  It was a formidable guide and it led those shrees down a path that would ensure the success of their lineage for millions of years to come.

Before long the Earth would recover from global devastation, and those tiny creatures would find themselves living in a world completely different to the one their ancestors had known.  There were still a great many struggles ahead, but that one species persevered and, against all the odds and thanks to its ancient success code, it flourished.  As they multiplied, the descendants of those timid creatures diversified and evolved to fill all the niches they could find.

 A mere 65 million years have passed since that time, together with a myriad of untold struggles that our ancestors managed to overcome.  Today the descendants of those once timid shrees are the most powerful beings on Earth.  You and I are amongst those proud creatures; brothers, sisters and cousins to the greatest minds in history – Einstein, Newton, Mendel, Darwin and Wallace – they all shared our own exact genetic code to an extraordinary level of precision.  The genetic difference between every human being who is, or ever has been alive on this Earth, is but a miniscule fraction of that great, evolved tome that sits within every cell in our bodies. It is our greatest success secret and every single one of us has been given this same, invaluable gift.

 We, as a species, have achieved countless inspiring successes.  We no longer suffer predation; we have cured many deadly diseases; we build insulated homes to protect ourselves from the environment; we have developed the technology to travel around the globe, even soaring through the air and far into outer space; we have visited other worlds; we have harnessed the power of the atom; we have developed language, culture, art, literature and music; we form complex, loving relationships; we laugh, sing and dance; we have learned to ask questions; we seek to improve ourselves.  Perhaps most importantly, we are now beginning to understand exactly what we are, and what it is that makes us human; that makes us so precious and unique.

Our lives will never be free from hardships, nor should we want them to be because we are not supposed to live a mediocre existence, without toil or achievement.  What makes us great – that very essence of humankind – is taking on life’s difficulties with courage, and conquering them.  What makes us more deeply happy than anything else in the world is the unique sense of growth that comes from mastering our own minds and bodies, and seizing control of our unique destiny.

 So, when you next face great difficulties or when the pressure of your daily challenges seems insurmountable, then perhaps you should pause for a moment and examine your own family tree.  There, if you look hard enough, you will find all the inspiration you will ever need.

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