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Charles Darwin Naturalist

University of Cambridge

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If there were one luminary whose science work established the basis for almost all the others on BeingHuman.org, it would have to be Charles Darwin. His world-shattering 1859 book, The Origin of Species, in which he proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, is one of the most important and influential texts ever written. A modern version of idea of evolution by natural selection is the basis of all of biology. Furthermore, without Darwin’s ideas about how life changes and adapts over vast periods of time, we cannot hope to understand our own day-by-day human experience.

Darwin’s idea allows us to explain what previously could not be explained. From the viewpoint of divine creation, things such as the appendix or tailbone don’t make any sense. And the human brain, which is clearly riddled with contradictions, absurdities, and unfortunate feedback loops, is hard to understand as the highest masterpiece of a divine intelligence. Simply saying that we cannot understand the will of god doesn’t suffice as an explanation. Yet this was largely the state of understanding human experience previous to Darwin’s insight.

In the light of evolutionary theory, these imperfect aspects of human nature suddenly make perfect sense. As an organism that evolved over millions and even billions of years, a human being was not designed by an intelligence, but is the result of mutation and natural selection pressures. An appendix is a vestigial organ, a leftover from a previous ancestor; the capricious contradictions of the human brain are the result of evolutionary kludges—adaptations that were good enough (for survival) even if they were not the best possible theoretical solution.

This, then, is one of the key legacies of Darwin’s contribution: that we can understand the experiences our lives in a new, powerful, and even liberating way.

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