Thursday, 12 February 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is bringing about a new reckoning. Museum exhibits and popular articles are asking what he got right, and how did he err. Many point out that evolution and natural selection are now widely accepted in the natural sciences, and that the special cases of sexual and group selection are increasingly embraced. But what I find intriguing are the lessons to be drawn from Darwin’s intellectual quest, and how they can inform the way that we conduct science today. Nicholas Wade of the New York Times notes that “one of Darwin’s advantages was that he did not have to write grant proposals or publish 15 articles a year.” He would ponder his theory for more than twenty years before publishing “The Origin of Species”, and then 12 years more before explaining how it related to people in “The Descent of Man”. The time he took to develop his ideas was dedicated to not only deep reflection on how to interpret empirical observations from his fieldwork but also explaining his insights in lucid and engaging English. He honed his knowledge of natural history by exploring anatomy, fossils, plants, sexual reproduction and the geographical distribution of living things. These are approaches that we should take to heart and mind in the new integrative, interdisciplinary science that is being developed to address our global cultural and environmental challenges.

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