Celebrating Darwin, Celebrating Science

When I write, I like to write the small stories. I don’t write about epic heroes. I don’t write about an individual changing the world single-handedly. That stuff just doesn’t interest me much, and besides, I’m not sure I believe that the people who’ve drastically changed the world for the better ever set out on purpose to do so.

Charles Darwin didn’t. He was, in fact, pretty uncomfortable with the idea of changing the world.

Darwin was actually a lot like the people I do like to write about. He had his pet obsessions that he pursued at length, but his real work started when the world intruded on those obsessions in a way he couldn’t ignore. And it was work—no single moment of brilliant insight that solved everything, but years of doggedness.

I doubt that Darwin would be comfortable with the idea of Darwin Day, either, but I think it’s a great idea. I particularly like the way I’ll be spending it. An evening of science and art seems like just the right way to celebrate Darwin’s achievements.

Why? Well, the science part is obvious, I think, particularly considering that all the speakers at the event will be talking about how understanding evolution helps us to understand our world. Art is harder to explain but just as important. This particular art is meant to communicate the understanding of evolution, but I think it also communicates something important about what science is.

In some ways, art and science scratch the same itch. We appear to have a need, we humans, to break off little chunks of the world and illuminate them to the best of our ability. We need to dissect, to ruminate and to share what we’ve discovered. We can do that in art, with line and color, with myth and metaphor. We can do it in science, teasing apart reality from perception and uncovering the hidden.

The tools are different, but the impulse is the same. So is the fact that it’s never satisfied. Satisfying, yes. Satisfied, no. People may stop trying to make a living at art or science, but they don’t really stop doing either. Stopping would require learning entirely new ways to relate to the world.

A few weeks ago, ScienceBlogs and Seed asked people about the rightful place of science. I could talk about its place in the public square, but I think much of that will take care of itself if we recognize the true place of science.

The true place of science is sitting on top of that little human itch, scratching, providing relief, but always uncovering new questions to be answered, generating a new itch.

As much as anything else, Darwin’s legacy is the example of a life lived scratching that itch. Others could have discovered the same things he did. He didn’t do it by heroics but by work. He did what anyone could have done. He did what we all can do.

And that’s worth celebrating.

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