15 February 2009

What would Darwin think?

Blog for DarwinThere's been a tremendous amount of good stuff about Charles Darwin this week in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth. That said, there's been one frequent question interviewers have been posing that I want to take on.

"What would Darwin think about... the interest in his birthday / his theory / the current state of biology / etc.?"

This is always a question I've disliked, because the whole point of deep thinkers is that they came up with answers that surprise you. Plus, almost every answer I've heard has said something like, "Oooh, I'm sure he'd be very pleased / excited / interested." Frankly, those answers seem just a bit too pat and easy.

Since nobody really knows what Darwin would have thought about current biology, let me suggest some alternate ideas...

Darwin, a naturalist to the core, would be horrified by how few biologists are engaged in observing the natural world. He might be highly critical of biologists working in labs with, say, cell lines who no appreciation of the organisms they originated from.

Darwin, fortunate to be independently wealthy, would be shocked at how contemporary scientists are forced to work on a thousand tasks at once. Darwin could speak about the importance of uninterrupted time in developing ideas, and might be convinced this would be a superior method of inquiry over doing grant writing, teaching, grant writing, revising manuscripts, sitting on administrative committees, and grant writing.

Darwin, by all accounts quite shy, would be embarrassed by the amount of attention he is receiving. He probably be the first to give credit to the many other researchers who have contributed to evolutionary biology.

Finally, Darwin might well be saddened that arguments he had during his lifetime, and which, in many cases, he correctly answered in his own writing, are still viewed as serious problems, instead of being matters that have been settled ten times over.

No comments: