A day for birthdays

I just got home from a lovely little birthday party thrown for one of my Anarchist Guild Social Committee castmates, and I had been so intent on getting the fairy bread right and excited that we used electrostatic charge to stick some of the party balloons to a curtain that I almost forgot who else was born on February 12: Abraham Lincoln.

Yes, it’s true: America’s tallest president turns 200 today, and I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about variation in the human population…nah. I’m kidding! I want to talk about Charles Erasmus Darwin, because he’s 200 today as well.

What to say about Charles Darwin? He studied medicine, but didn’t complete the course because – according to various sources – he both found it boring and was afraid of blood. He came up with one of the most powerful scientific ideas of all time, but delayed publishing it for twenty years to study barnacles in infinite detail. (If you find that intriguing, I recommend Rebecca Stott’s Darwin and the Barnacle, probably the finest book written about Darwin.) He possessed a gentle nature, and detested all forms of cruelty to man and animal alike; he once tried to have a man freed from an asylum when a letter written by the patient came into his possession and seemed rational, though even the man himself latter admitted he was insane when he wrote it. And he greatly opposed vivisection, writing in a letter in 1871 that it was “a subject that makes me sick with horror” and cutting the discussion short “else I shall not sleep to-night.”

Even 100 years ago, scientists gathered to celebrate his contributions, and when he died in 1882, he was buried in Westminster Abbey a few feet from the grave of Isaac Newton. A century later in the age of genetics, molecular biology, and even the resurgence of not-quite-Lamarckism via epigenetics, his name is synonymous – for better or worse – with his legacy, the theory of evolution via natural selection. And now, 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species, his name and deeds are being discussed in hundreds if not thousands of blogs across the globe.

Not bad for a life’s work, eh?

February 12 is also – unofficially – “National Freedom to Marry Day” in the United States, which has been celebrated for a decade today. It’s tempting to think that the date was chosen on purpose, as a refutation to all those neo-conservatives who argue that homosexuality is “unnatural” (and who, in the States at least, are pretty likely to consider evolution pretty unnatural too) – but of course, with only 365 days to choose from, I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons. Probably it was convenient to make it coincide with an official holiday – Lincoln’s Birthday.

Whatever you did today, I hope you can take a moment to think about Charles Darwin, the man, as admirable a scientist and human being as ever there was. But spare a thought for Alfred Wallace while you’re at it; if it weren’t for his famous generosity, Darwin might be no more than a blip on the scientific radar, and in 2023 we’d be celebrating his 200th birthday instead.