Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin Day

A few evenings ago, I saw an extraordinary 50-minute French-language TV documentary entitled Espèces d'espèces (Kinds of species), explaining how humans are cousins of countless creatures, organisms, plants, bacteria, etc. We have in common the undeniable fact (unknown, of course, to Charles Darwin) that we're all built out of strands of stuff called DNA.

An ingenious underlying element of the movie, which exploits superb graphics, was a novel representation of the "tree" of species in the form of a kind of big spherical cauliflower, which could have been mistaken for the fat brain of some mysterious giant creature. In fact, this "tree" might indeed be imagined, metaphorically, as the brain of a primordial virtual species that we can call DNA. The root of the tree has a lovely name: LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of the myriad DNA-based species that have existed on the planet Earth.

Although this has nothing to do with Darwin Day, that name reminds me, of course, of one of my favorite songs. So let me use that association as a pretext to celebrate Darwin Day by including in this post the famous song of Suzanne Vega... who is certainly one of the loveliest specimens of Homo sapiens I've ever admired.

Getting back to the "tree", we're obliged to admit that Homo sapiens is nothing more than a tiny blob on the outer surface of the cauliflower "cortex". We are neither more nor less important (whatever that might mean) than countless other blobs representing everything from whales, elephants and giant oak trees down to tiny insects and unicellular organisms such as bacteria.

Today, we can't evoke Darwin without thinking of one of his most brilliant offspring (metaphorically speaking): Richard Dawkins.

The TV documentary described an excursion that consisted of moving back from our Homo sapiens blob, down into the heart of the cauliflower, in pursuit of encounters with the ancestors of our various cousins. This is the same fabulous journey imagined by Dawkins in his book The Ancestor's Tale, mentioned in my article of August 13, 2008 entitled Exotic pilgrimage [display].

If you click on the portrait of Dawkins, you can see a delightful talk on atheism... which is so closely associated with Darwinism and the DNA species "tree" that I tend to think of them as part and parcel of a unique philosophy of enlightenment. And here's another nice Dawkins video:

To end this birthday post, here are links to an imaginary interview with Darwin [access] and a Scientific American article on the legacy of Darwin [access].


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for your Darwin Day post. Last night we sat at our kitchen table, here in Lilyfield, and toasted the anniversary of his birth.

    Next month we hope to attend a two-day symposium at the National Maritime Museum. In the meantime, my partner has been waiting patiently to have cataracts removed before embarking on my Christmas present (yes, sadly, we do celebrate with presents and merry-making but with no religious connotations), Charles Darwin on the Origin of Species: The illustrated edition, edited by David Quammen and published by Sterling. As well as its content, it is one of the most beautiful books I've ever seen.

    (Previous comment deleted as I used the wrong ID and didn't realise it would still show up on your post as a deleted comment, sorry.)

  3. I note with interest that Darwin shared his date of birth with Abraham Lincoln.

    Evolution eh?

  4. I'm dismayed to find that the majority of US articles about Darwin Day are polluted by extraneous allusions to religion. On the one hand, there are the vast hordes of totally dumb Americans who believe that Genesis provides us with a literal description of the creation of the universe. For these idiots, there is no hope of any kind of rational dialogue. They are like children who still believe in fairies. On the other hand, there are many apparently intelligent folk who persist in imagining that, in one way or another, Darwinian evolution and belief in religion can be construed to coexist. In the videos linked to my blog post, Richard Dawkins makes it perfectly clear that this is an illusion. Anybody who has succeeded in grasping totally the principles of evolution is obliged to abandon religion. An adept of Darwinian biology has no other choice than to become an atheist. There is no longer any middle ground. When we move onto the territory of the famous "selfish gene" described by Dawkins, the situation is even more absolute. There is no longer any case for the profound existence of a human "self". But that's an infinitely more subtle story.

    In ecclesiastical terms, it might be said, whimsically, that mastering the principles of Darwin is akin to having done enough training to become a priest. Acceding to a mastery of the genetic principles of Dawkins is like becoming an archbishop. Then, still higher, the total world-view of a scientist who strives to comprehend quantum theory, at the level of David Deutsch, resembles the absolute purity of a monk...

    I've resorted momentarily to these Christian yardsticks for a real but crazy reason. It would be great if we were able to discard our archaic dictionaries and declare that, from now on, the term "religion" designates the thinking that I've just outlined.

  5. Paul: I've just come upon a splendid web page from the Religion News Service of The Salt Lake Tribune that tackles the question of Lincoln's religious beliefs. In the context of Darwin Day, the page contains several links to delightful specimens of Mormon bullshit. As a cherry on the birthday cake, there's even a short article about a female Muslim pharmacist in Utah who asks rhetorically: "If only the fittest survive, why are apes still here?" My God, that's a weird and disturbing question. I hope the lady finds a firm answer as rapidly as possible, otherwise she might be capable of lobbying for a shotgun jihad against apes, just to demonstrate unequivocally that they're truly not as fit for survival as she is.