The world Charles Darwin was born into on February 12, 1809, would be almost entirely unrecognizable to us today. Bicycles had yet to be invented, steam engines were just beginning to appear, and slavery was commonly practiced in both England and the United States. During the course of his lifetime, Darwin saw the world around him change enormously, but arguably one of the most significant changes came from his own ideas. Darwin’s theory evolution of natural selection (co-discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace, of course), altered the ways we think about almost every aspect of life.
While Darwin’s theory was groundbreaking, shocking, and tremendously illuminating during his lifetime, what does it mean for us today? With all the time that has passed since Darwin’s birth, is there anything we can still learn from him? In the pursuit of science and everyday life, there are countless ways Darwin’s words still ring true, but today I want to mention three eternal truths that I think Darwin highlights.
1) Nature is wonderful. Darwin taught us that complex creatures like birds, frogs, and even humans came about through many small changes over a long period of time. Evidence for this history is everywhere, you just have to stop and notice the details. His vivid description of an entangled bank reminds me that there is wonder in acknowledging this simple fact from time to time:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
Only Darwin could make me really stop and think about Earth worms.
2) Beauty can be found in the struggle. Darwin knew all too well that nature can be brutal. Individual animals fight, starve, and die other horrible deaths. Darwin acknowledged that existence is a struggle, that nature is often at war, and that resources are scarce. Somehow, he still found solace in the end product:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Yes, there is war, famine, and death, but the existence of complex life on this planet that has emerged from those struggles is truly something beautiful.
3) We are all connected and we all depend on each other. Evolution reminds us that all living creatures came about through the same basic principles. We all evolved from common ancestors in the remote past, from simple beginnings. Let’s return to Darwin’s entangled bank quote. He asks us to:
“….reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner…”
We cannot forget that we are dependent on other living creatures in complex ways—ways that we often don’t fully understand. Let us remember this when it comes to how we choose to treat each other. Let us remember our interconnectedness as we continue altering the landscape of this planet. Our dependence on things as seemingly insignificant as earthworms must be recognized if we want to continue to survive as a species.
Bonus: Everyone has bad days, and that’s ok. There are plenty of lessons that can be gleaned not from Darwin’s theory, but from his human side. This is one of those lessons: even one of the most hardworking and well-known people in history had terrible days, as seen from a letter in which he wrote, “I am very poorly today and very stupid hate everybody and everything.” Read more about Darwin’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day via NPR.
So thank you for the countless lessons, Mr. Charles Darwin. Are there any lessons you all would add to this list? Let me know in the comments, and have a wonderful Darwin Day!