On Darwin Day, Promoting Scientific Thinking

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 25:  Original letters from Charles Darwin are displayed at the Herbaruim library on March 25, 2009 at
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 25: Original letters from Charles Darwin are displayed at the Herbaruim library on March 25, 2009 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. Darwin wrote the letter (R) to his mentor Reverend John Henslow aboard HMS Beagle in April 1833 - writing two ways - as paper was expensive. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Like Galileo, Newton and Einstein in the physical sciences, Darwin in the life sciences provided a new framework for thinking that led to great new understanding and eventually greatly improved the quality of life for millions of people. I have proposed that this date be recognized officially as Darwin Day as a reminder of the need to promote scientific thinking throughout our society.

Although I am a research scientist and teacher by background, the world in which I live day to day -- the world of politics and legislation -- is a fairly constrained, unscientific world. The inhabitants of that world do not often break new ground. There are not many new ideas. The work of politicians is to find a balance of existing competing interests that will hold at least for a short time. Science is not like that; it is progressive. Scientists operate on the assumption that through better and better theories drawn from evidence one can have clearer and clearer understanding of how the world works.

Science is not primarily a compilation and refinement of what is known. Science is mostly a very clever technique for venturing into what is not known. Its currency is new ideas. The new ideas are not simply daydreams or unfounded conjectures. They are extrapolations from observation and evidence. The scientists we extol, like Darwin, could see more pathways into the unknown from the commonplace.

Newton could show that the commonly observed gravity applied equally well to falling apples on Earth or orbiting planets in the heavens, and others could extend the same theories to spiral galaxies. Einstein could show that Newton's theory of gravitation could be modified to explain and predict even more phenomena by considering clocks in the presence of gravity and considering analogies to common, non-gravitational acceleration. Later, others could extrapolate to new ideas about astonishingly dense black holes or to global positioning systems able to pinpoint a person's location anywhere in the world within inches.

Darwin's observations and theory about finches and pigeons have led scientists from an understanding of the suitability of different sized beaks for cracking different seeds to much more obviously relevant concerns such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kill humans, the effect of climate changes on crops, species-jumping viruses, the ability of adult humans to digest milk, the susceptibility of individuals to malaria, or the relative abilities of Tibetans and Han Chinese to thrive on the high Himalayan plateau.

We learn through the study of science that the world is not capricious, that there is a majestic order and beauty that emerges from understanding. Science leads, not only to practical new ideas, but also to better thinking and to a more optimistic view of the possibilities of humans. For some it also leads to a greater appreciation of the divine. In the words of the psalmist, "the heavens are telling the glory of God; the firmament displays his wondrous handiwork." The wonder and the glory, say many religiously faithful scientists, are enhanced the more we pursue an understanding.

But science need not be tied to the divine.

In light of the frequent criticism that science, and especially evolution, are inhumane, materialistic and profane, it is worth noting that the work of Darwin was not simply about finches or apes. He was especially motivated to understand and appreciate the almost incredible diversity in the family of man. Throughout his life he sought to relate this appreciation and understanding of human diversity to God's plan for the world. Maybe it is not surprising that Darwin would become a central symbol in the human struggle to find religious meaning in life, but there is an irony that his work would become Exhibit A and Darwin himself the bête noir for those people who hope to find meaning by rejecting science and scientific thought.

There is a grandeur in being able confidently to make such great excursions into new territory. Mark Twain brought laughs at this extrapolation, saying that science gets "such a wholesale return of conjecture on such a trifling investment of fact." Satirist as he was, Twain nevertheless was more right than he realized. As scientists have demonstrated over and over again to humanity's undeniable benefit, scientific thinking brings an enormous return on investment, intellectually and practically, and even economically. This return in the form of understanding of the unknown comes not from arrogant assertion of new concepts, but rather from a patient observation of existing evidence.

Although scientists are not immune to arrogance personally, the practice of science has a fundamental humility. Every theory (that is, framework for organizing ideas) is provisional. Every scientist must keep in mind that his, or her, best thinking will be superseded by other theories based on further evidence. Newton superseded Galileo. Einstein superseded Newton. Darwin superseded Linneaus. Modern evolutionists have superseded Darwin. In other words, science elevates humankind, but keeps reminding scientist that they are not so special in the grand scheme of things.

Just as we don't say that Newton was wrong when Einstein showed that Newton's Theory of Gravitation did not apply in every circumstance, so we can continue to celebrate Darwin as a master of scientific thinking we should all seek to emulate. That goes for my colleagues in politics as well as for biology students. We could all benefit from reflecting during this Darwin Day on the need to promote scientific thinking.