Happy Birthday, Chuck D

No, not that Chuck D.

This one.

Yes, today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin.

I doubt that most of you, Faithful Readers, share my obsession about the topic of evolution via natural selection, and the origins of that particular subject are far too much for a single, humble blog post.  But it certainly would not be an exaggeration to say that the theory of natural selection is one of the most important two or three ideas in the history of the life sciences, and as the father of its discovery and description, Darwin earned his spot in the pantheon of scientific giants from whose shoulders we reach for the stars.

However, while it’s often acknowledged that he also deserved credit for the description of sexual selection as an independent work, the details often seem to get lost.  I’m sure everyone out there knows someone of a smart, scientific bent, who has a particular theory that they almost always fall back on to explain something new, or unusual.  It’s a slight variant on the ‘when all you have is a hammer’ cliche.  For me, ironically enough, it’s evolution!  But Darwin, having spent much of his adult life explicating the theory of natural selection, was able to, when facing problems that his grand theory didn’t seem to explain well, expand his mental horizons to court an altogether new set of ideas which, in some cases, run almost entirely counter to his original ones.  Oftentimes, as in the oft-cited case of the peacock’s tail, a sexually selected trait makes the animal less fit, in the sense of physically able to hide from or avoid predation.

It’s the sign of a great mind indeed that can come up with a paradigm-shifting scientific revolution and then, in the course of a lifetime, be able to come up with a new theory that explains phenomena that seem to run almost entirely in the opposite direction.

So raise a tankard of ale tonight in honor of jolly old Mr. Darwin, and wish his theory 200 more years of grand explication of life’s mysteries.

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