On Darwin Day, embracing the marvel of our existence

Charles Darwin in 1881, from The Illustrated Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, abridged and illustrated by Richard Leakey
Charles Darwin in 1881, from The Illustrated Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, abridged and illustrated by Richard Leakey

Tomorrow, thousands of people in hundreds of locations across the world will gather to celebrate the birth in 1809 of the naturalist Charles Darwin. Most will be unofficial gatherings, though in a few states and cities, they will be accompanied by official proclamations of Darwin Day, a recognition of the contributions Charles Darwin made to our understanding not simply of the world, or of biology, but of what it means to be human.

Indeed, on Feb. 2 a resolution was introduced in Congress calling for a national observance of the day. It called Darwin “a worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the achievements of human knowledge.”

Beginning with observations undertaken on the ’round-the-globe voyage of HMS Beagle in the 1830s and bolstered by work after his return to England, Darwin bequeathed to mankind an understanding of how species emerged by evolving from earlier forms and offered a mechanism for how this process occurred in natural selection.

The gift of Darwin was to allow us, as humans, to see ourselves properly – as creatures shaped by nature and enmeshed in a web of life that stretches back some 4 billion years, a party to which we are very much latecomers. We are, as Carl Sagan once put it, the cosmos trying to understand itself.

As animals, we are no longer able to claim pride of place in a created order. As humans, we are uniquely poised to affect the natural world for good or ill. As people, we are all fundamentally alike, none inherently worth more than another. Ideas and ideologies we use to differentiate ourselves from one another stand reveled as human creations, obscuring the fact of our common humanity.

Some would claim that this debases us as humans. But the truth is that this view of life simply states the bare facts of our existence. It provides us with a rational basis for action, which we can take either to our detriment or our improvement. It leaves us free to create meaning in our lives and to help others find it in theirs. It allows us to find ourselves in nature and nature in us. It teaches that other life forms on this planet have value in and of themselves. It requires us to cherish the island of life we inhabit in a cold and indifferent cosmos.

And yet, even armed with this knowledge we continue, as a species, to act very differently, to ignore Darwin’s gift.

We live as though we have somehow been given a dispensation from the normal processes of nature and of history. We alter the environment to suit our immediate needs, irrespective of the long-term damage. We claim to be members of this or that special group, to an exceptionalism – whether based on race or religion or nationality – that exempts us from the normal duties we owe others and allows us to ignore the consequences of our actions. We pretend to a different knowledge, often some special revelation, that supersedes the understanding of nature gained through the sciences. We take our mastery of technology to mean that we can always stay one step ahead of catastrophe.

After Darwin, such a way is no longer viable. Just as the discoveries of previous centuries forced us to accept that we did not occupy the center of the cosmos, that we were bound to that cosmos by intelligible rules, Darwin forces us to accept that there is nothing fundamentally privileged about us as a species.

If we stand apart from nature, it is in the role, as the naturalist E.O. Wilson put it, of the giant meteorite hurtling toward Earth. It need not be the case. We need only embrace the marvel of our existence, the sheer unlikelihood of it all, to embrace the beauty of simply being, because as Darwin concluded:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

For calling on us to meet ourselves anew and to know ourselves as we are, and for awakening the sense of awe in the presence of nature, I will celebrate. Join me.

Michael G. Bazemore Jr. teaches history at Meredith College and William Peace University in Raleigh.