Why Do We Celebrate Darwin Day?

Fighting pseudoscience is a hassle, but it's important.

Posted Feb 12, 2019

Although far from a universal commemoration, February 12th is "Darwin Day." We set this day aside to celebrate one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the modern era. Charles Darwin's contributions so revolutionized the study of life that his main thesis is often considered "the unifying principle of biology." Darwin's work has influenced other fields also, including psychology, sociology, and economics.

But that's not why we celebrate Darwin Day. After all, Copernicus and Newton were at least as revolutionary, but they don't have a day. Nor does Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Louis Pasteur, or even Aristotle. Personally, I'd love a Jane Goodall day or a Barbara McClintock day. So why do we single out Darwin so specifically for celebration? Two reasons.

The Hornet (1871), Public Domain
Source: The Hornet (1871), Public Domain

First, because no other scientific figure has attracted so much undeserved vitriol. From the very start, Darwin was vilified and viciously attacked in the most personal way possible. He was called evil, stupid, and every other insult and condemnation you can imagine. As a public defender of evolution, I've had a small taste of that vitriol myself and it isn't pleasant. We celebrate Darwin in order to publicly reject that vitriol and defend his image and his honor from the smears of his critics. Those critics are just as active now (and some are just as mean-spirited) as they were in the Victorian period when Darwin published his work.

Second, we celebrate Darwin Day because, somehow, his ideas are still controversial in some corners of society. The simple logic of natural selection is under attack daily from the pseudoscientific communities of creationism and intelligent design. Now, to be sure, evolutionary science has come a long way since Darwin, just as physics has come a long way since Newton and philosophy has come a long way since Socrates. A century and a half of biological research has refined, extended, and contextualized natural selection within the larger evolutionary field, but it has not overturned it. 

Psychology has been heavily influenced by evolutionary science. While Freud never formally brought evolutionary science into his theories, he mentioned Darwin's work frequently. Subsequently, the fields of sociobiology, ethology, comparative behavior, and most recently, evolutionary psychology have attempted to bring evolutionary context to the study of behavior. It's difficult work because the molecular mechanisms of behavior are opaque, to say the least. Also, there is a powerful temptation to over-interpret every single behavior with an adaptationist explanation. 

Harper Collins
Darwin Devolves by Michael J. Behe (2019)
Source: Harper Collins

Even today, evolutionary science is under attack. Most of these attacks are so unscientific that we needn't bother responding to them (although I did, perhaps foolishly, respond to Ken Ham's attack of my first book). But there is a tiny handful of credentialed biologists that dispute evolution and they have become quite famous in the world of creation science, despite the dearth of actual research findings to bolster their position. The most respected of these "Darwin dissenters" is Michael J. Behe. Because he writes with the veneer of scientific authority, scientists absolutely should respond to his writings by referring to evidence that he ignores or misinterprets. To ignore him is to allow his pseudoscience to stand unchallenged. 

Dr. Behe's third book (oddly titled, "Darwin Devolves") will be released at the end of the month. Richard Lenski, Joshua Swamidass, and I were invited by Science magazine to provide a review, which was published this week (open access version). In our review, we mention just a few of the many errors in this book and reference the research that refutes them. (We were limited to 750 words!) But I have also written a longer book review for AiPT! and will have an even longer piece in Skeptic Magazine next month. 

Why am I and others spending so much of our precious time responding to critics that hold no influence in the scientific community? Because as much as scientists ignore the work of Behe, much of the general public does not. Resistance to evolutionary science is frustratingly high in the United States in part because what the critics lack in evidence, they make up for fundraising and organizing. The attacks on evolutionary science are coordinated, multi-pronged, and generously funded. Fortunately, renewed efforts to teach evolution properly in schools, aided by court decisions keeping "intelligent design" out of public school classrooms, has borne fruit and acceptance of evolution is once again rising in the U.S.

The truth usually wins in the end, but sometimes at great cost. Imagine if all the money and man-hours spent fighting pseudoscientific challenges had been spent on more biomedical research. As with the vaccines-autism debacle, pseudoscience can do great harm. It should not be laughed off.

This year on Darwin Day, celebrate the memory of the founder of modern biology by promoting proper science education and evolutionary research in whatever way you can. If your local public school is under attack from pseudoscience, get in there and aid the pushback. And if you'd like a reading list on specific topics, hit me up. I'm here to help!

References

Lents, N.H., Swamidass, S. J., & Lenski, R. L. (2019). The End of Evolution? A biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence. Science. v363(6427): p590.

Behe, M. J. (2019). Darwin Devolves: The New Science About DNA that Challenges Evolution. HarperCollins.