Charles Darwin’s lasting legacy

    Local groups celebrate the evolutionary biologist’s 200th birthday

    Tomorrow [2/12/09] marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birthday. In Philadelphia, science institutions and museums are honoring Darwin’s most famous contribution — the theory of evolution. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens has more.

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    The American Philosophical Society’s library is an old brick building on the same national park grounds as Independence Hall. Inside, a few people sit at long wooden tables reading books. Martin Levitt is the librarian. He leads me past the public area, through an empty hallway, and to a massive door with steel bars and thick glass.

    Charles Darwin's correspondence to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; Darwin was a member.
    Charles Darwin's correspondence to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; Darwin was a member.
    Levitt: This is a 1950s bank vault. It was essentially designed at the time during the cold war to withstand thermonuclear attack.

    Among the 14,000 papers from Benjamin Franklin and a hand-written Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson are precious artifacts from Charles Darwin. The Society has the largest collection of correspondence outside England, and 5,000 copies of Darwin’s books. That includes a small, green one that revolutionized science and a basic understanding of life.

    This is a first edition of the Origin of Species, published in 1859.

    Levitt pulls out more Darwin treasures. He opens a folder containing thin papers with cryptic handwriting.

    Levitt: One of the things I’m always struck by on this title page is how modest it is!

    The page is Darwin’s letter to a friend proposing a possible title for his famous book.

    First edition copy of Darwin's famous book
    First edition copy of Darwin's famous book
    Levitt: Darwin thinks it’s an abstract of an essay on the origin of species. And it’s 600 pages long. His modesty is almost of Victorian proportions.

    This title page and the book will be on display during an exhibition in April. It’s part of a year-long celebration of evolution, hosted by a group of local institutions. Michael Weisberg is a philosophy professor at Penn and co-chair of the events. He explains why Darwin is such a household name, compared to other influential scientists in history.

    Weisberg: For one thing, scientists still read Darwin. And it’s very unusual. Scientists very rarely read Newton, and they rarely read Linnaeus, and they very rarely read Lavoisier, but they read Darwin.

    And for another reason, Darwin is still very much debated. Ken Miller is a biology professor at Brown University. He says researchers are still testing Darwin’s primary mechanism for how evolution happens. The process called natural selection.

    Darwin's handwritten title page draft for On the Origin of Species
    Darwin's handwritten title page draft for On the Origin of Species
    Miller: One of the things that is highly contentious and people work on all the time is how the various forms of natural selection are balanced. Which is more important, sexual selection or what you might call physiological selection?

    In other words, is it more important to be attractive to a mate and have reproductive success, or to be successful at other things, like digesting a wider variety of foods? Other scientists debate the merits of sexual selection altogether. Darwin seems to have predicted the kerfuffle surrounding his work. At the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, librarian Bob Peck reads a letter from Darwin to a member of the academy.

    Peck: I have never for a moment doubted that though I cannot see my errors that much in my book will be found erroneous.

    Drawings from Darwin's study of finches
    Drawings from Darwin's study of finches
    Peck reiterates that Darwin was very modest. But he wasn’t so modest to think that people wouldn’t care about his theories. Ken Miller at Brown says Darwin was aware of how heretical evolution may have seemed to others. Miller was an expert witness during a trial several years ago in Dover Pennsylvania over how evolution should be taught in schools.

    I think if Darwin were around today, he’d understand that these ideas, when they’re taught in the public schools to large numbers of people in a religious country like the United States, are going to be controversial.

    But it seems unlikely that with Darwin’s notorious modesty he could have predicted how furiously people like Miller argue in favor of his theories, in the lab or in the school, 150 years after he wrote his book. Nor that thousands of people in cities across the globe would call February 12th each year Darwin Day.

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