This year marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (12th February, 1809), one of the greatest minds ever lived. For the British scientist-thinker had not only changed science and the course of human history since, but also had set Man (qua human), for the first time, in his place in the overall scheme of things. According to Darwin, the chain of life had started somewhere in the mists of time as mere load of raw materials, a bunch of amino-acids, no more, no less! This setting up of homo sapient, against all recorded history lore, not as a purposeful one time shot, but rather as part of a chain of natural events that leads back to the Big Bang, was Darwin’s greatest and most enduring contribution. Darwin dared to recognize life, for what it’s, a random occurrence, out of a stormy and turbulent universe. With his other main contribution, that’s, life as a project-in-progress, in continuous mutations and transformations was what made him a giant of all times. For daring to challenge, human idiocy, he’s being both venerated and abhorred at the same time.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was born to an intellectual family -his father Erasmus Darwin was one of the leading thinkers of his time- had joined Edinburgh University to study medicine, only to abandon it for Cambridge’s divinity school. In 1931, he joined the survey ship HMS Beagle for a five year scientific expedition. Circling around the world, the ship ended up in South America’s Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Equador, where Darwin had the luck and acuity to pay close attention and take notice to some of the differences, in the same species (Flinches), occurring due mainly to different environmental conditions. This observation had set him on a course which culminated 28 years later in the publication of the most important scientific work in the 19th century, On The Origin of Species.
Why the "Origin of Species" was so important? Because it’d set life on a new grounds, and indeed, gave a new answer to what it means to be human. Though, sciences had accompanied human journey from the beginning of time, up to the Renaissance, they were merely speculative individual endeavors than well-thought about organized efforts. Driven mostly by curiosity -what had perhaps spurred Homo Erectus to make his first steps- never were a big contributors to the various civilizations which had piched in, in one form or another, to the communal basket of human knowledge. Religions had contributed more than sciences and thus had framed also most of the march of the subsequent civilizations up to the 15th century. The flat-earth flaky sham had dominated most of the successive civilizations. Until Modern sciences had demolished this geocentric view of the world, and thus has set the journey since then on a new course. Few captains had steered the ship on this new course. They’d not only understood and synthesized what was there before them but most importantly they'd set the new framing in order. Copernicus and Galileo in the Physical sciences, Leibniz and Newton in the Mathematical sciences, and Darwin (and perhaps Mendel) in the Life Sciences. Without these giants, life would have been still as Thomas Hobbes had described it: "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Darwin’s central organizing principles adaptation, selection, and evolution, gave the Life Sciences and indeed all other sciences, a frame that has organized and guided their endeavors since then. Without such a paradigm they would have been still a motley of disarrayed and scattered curiosities. All life had one beginning when a bunch of particles coagulated together into a set of amino-acids, or the First-Living-Cell. This central hypothesis, which is more and more, being refined every passing day, was what gave sense and explained the raison d’etre, the position within the chain, of all living organisms. From that early and modest start, eons of years ago,, life has been flourishing in all its forms and manifestations.
Darwin had found the missing key that explained the variety and richness of life forms under different conditions. It made it possible to understand all living organisms as part of the chain of mutations. A knowledge that has explained how some life forms, viruses, mutate in a matter of days and weeks while others, humans, take thousands if not millions of years to notice any changes in them. It has also helped modern medicine, in its vertiginous progress and performance, to cope with age-old diseases as well as new ones. Without Darwin’s insights, it would be very difficult to foresee the vaccines and antibiotics that have improved so much life’s chances of survival. Nor could the progress since taking place, in this area as well as in others, as the discovery of the double helix of the DNA, the genetic manipulations and engineering, deciphering of the Human Genome, etc. be achieved. To Darwin in particular, humanity owes so much of what has been able to accomplish so far. Bravo, and a gran salute to Mr. Darwin on his 200th birthday!