February 12 is Darwin’s birthday. As an evolutionary biologist and a biology nerd, I wanted to point that out. I’m not alone: today is known as Darwin Day among many scientists. (There’s even a Facebook page!)
There are a lot of sources of information about Darwin out there; some of them are not 100% correct. For instance, this biography, from bluepete says that Darwin was the first evolutionary biologist. He was not. One pretty famous pre-Darwin evolutionary biologist is Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Darwin was the first to develop the idea that evolution can happen because of natural selection, and while he did some other really important and interesting work, this is the thing for which he’s known best.
Natural selection is pretty cool. Here’s the basic idea, sacrificing some of the truly elegant math for the sake of simplicity: we know that there aren’t enough resources for every living thing. We know that living things compete for those resources – like, say, water, or food. We know that living things reproduce (have babies; have offspring), and that there are more babies born than may be able to live. We also know that not all offspring will be exactly the same. I will direct your attention to the picture of hatching spiders below for an example of a living thing that has a whole lot of babies at one time.
Lots of babies, right? Okay: Darwin’s insight was that if there’s variation among offspring, some of that variation will be caused by differences in the instructions for how to make that living thing. (Darwin didn’t know about genetics – a topic for Mendel’s birthday, perhaps!) If that inherited variation causes a difference in how well those offspring who have it to survive, they’ll survive and have more offspring of their own who also have that variation in their instructions. Thus, “nature” is “selecting” the variation that will be passed on through the generations.
If you’re so inclined, you might also want a plush Darwin of your own. (Mine is sitting in the middle of my office, on a shared table, wearing a birthday hat I made him. The doll was a gift from my parents, who got it from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild. Apparently it’s on sale today, which is appropriate! The number of Darwin and evolution toys, t-shirts, and other items is pretty big – yes, I’m wearing an evolution t-shirt today, too – but I’ll restrain my nerdy consumerism to just the plush.)
P.S. As my fellow USians will know, today is also the birthday of our 14th president, Abraham Lincoln. My personal opinion is that neither person led the ideal life we like to think of in people we consider really important, but they each did some very important work and took some unpopular stances, and I’m pleased to remember the good work they did. It also amuses me, for no really good reason, that they were born during the same year. Neat, huh?