Charles Darwin was born February 12, 1809, and so we approach his 200th birthday. Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (that is the full title) marked the start of widespread awareness of the concepts of natural selection and evolution. The book was published late in 1859, so this year is the 150th anniversary of its publication as well.
The question is, why should we care? I ask a question that seemingly has an obvious answer; but those are often the questions that need to be asked. Changes in the hidden assumptions that make things "obvious" are what starts revolutionary change in the history of thought and society. One example is the Darwin theory of evolution. Many additional issues were clarified after his death, especially notable being the source of random variation which is currently thought to be radiation and other reproductive accidents and defects in DNA. However, the culture-changing discoveries by Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace burst upon the world in the 19th century, and in the end showed that man must might be another animal, probably more intelligent and maybe more gifted in other mental capacities than all other species, but, still an animal.
But if the question is, why should we care, I have not yet provided my answer for that question. And here it is: we should care because the same process of revolutionizing societal thought in the industrialized world, is needed today. For the most part, wealthy nations and their citizens feel their way of life is permanent, and not negotiable. Those who don't fully share in the wealth of the United States, western Europe, or Japan, wish they could partake in more of that wealth.
The issue is so important that an organization to which I belong, the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, is celebrating Darwin Day today. The motto is "Stand Up for Science". As a humanistic religous and philosophical organization, we care about understanding and improving our world. Seeing reality clearly and using that insight in a caring way is part of our philosophy.
The problem we face as a society and as a planet is that no way of life is permanent or guaranteed, and the illusion of permanence can be dangerous. As described in Jarred Diamond's carefully researched book Collapse, there have been numerous advanced civilizations in human history (Easter Island, Viking, and others) that lived successfully for hundreds or even thousands of years, but that were gradually depleting the resources on which they lived, finally ending in extinction or great and long-lasting poverty (an example of the latter is in Haiti, once a fully-forested land and now stripped bare of almost all trees and topsoil and therefore of food). The book also points to other civilizations that have narrowly averted similar catastrophes, such as the Dominican Republic and Japan.
I think one set of words that apply to Charles Darwin and his publishing of On the Origin of Species is the phrase "Stand Up for Science". Despite the sense by some that the evolution of human beings from some form of pre-ape degrades humanity and therefore degrades the God from which we supposedly originated, despite that sense, Darwin decided to publish his long-gathered, deeply-considered information in 1859. In the modern world, one result of coming out with this particular dose of reality has been a remarkable growth in medical knowledge through genetic research. Understanding of DNA and reproduction have led to artificial insemination, genetic therapy, and possibly dramatic treatments with stem cells.
Today, we have an "Inconvenient Truth", as Al Gore calls it. All the science points to catastrophic changes in our planet's ability to support life due to gradual depletion of fossil fuels in the not-too-distant future, and warming that may cause average temperature increases as high as 19 F. Lack of water is already a severe problem for many, as well. We can not afford to live in a fog while navigating around the (melting) icebergs. Our way of life is not permanent, and is not guaranteed. The longer we wait before standing up for science in our own minds, the longer we wait, the closer gets an unplanned and unsafe future. If we wake up in time, maybe we can still steer around the iceberg, or have a glancing blow instead of a head-on collision.
I hope when we all wake up we don't find that we are living on the next Titanic. But failiing to wake up and failing to steer a responsible course is the worst, and most risky, course of action, or rather, inaction. That is where we find ourselves today despite the beginnings of a great deal of discussion. Many scientists say that we should have started enacting changes thirty years ago, or at most twenty years ago. But still, starting now is better than starting in 10 years. So, what are we all waiting for?