Evolution, or the process by which living organisms change over time, was not discovered by Charles Darwin. But he certainly gave the theory its street cred.
By introducing natural selection — the idea that organisms best suited to survive in their particular circumstances have a greater chance of passing their traits on to the next generation — Darwin gave us a plausible mechanism by which evolution could take place. And that made all the difference. Darwin's 1859 book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was the most groundbreaking biological theory the world had ever seen. And it remains an idea so powerful that it's still banned today in some schools.
Tomorrow — Feb. 12 — would be Charles Darwin's 204th birthday. And it's practically the only secular holiday we've got. So let's celebrate!
1. Watch this seven-minute video of cool-as-hell Carl Sagan explaining Natural Selection in a delightful and simply way.
2. Make a toast. Darwin's name is one we want our kids to know and respect, so even if they're too young to grasp the process of natural selection, at least get his name out there. At dinner tomorrow, raise a glass of something bubbly to Charles Darwin, a famous and important scientist whose life we celebrate.
3. Drop the "theory." As Sagan says in the video above, evolution is a fact. The reason we hear the phrase "theory of evolution" so often is because, during Darwin's day, evolution was a theory. But DNA has since proven what Darwin had theorized. Calling evolution a theory today is both confusing and misleading.
4. Check out this little guy. The LA Times had a great little story that ran yesterday on a creature known as the "hypothetical placental mammal ancestor." It's a small, furry-tailed creature believed to be the common ancestor of more than 5,000 living species — including whales, elephants, bats, rodents and humans. Check it out. They even have a full-color rendering of the darn thing.
5. Watch this six-minute clip of Richard Attenborough explaining the Tree of Life. It's a quick but extremely effective snapshot of how humans and every other life form on Earth evolved from the same pool of bacteria some 300 million years ago. And note how the rodent they feature, as the first mammal, looks pretty much exactly like the one in the LA Times article above. The clip was taken from "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life," a BBC Production made to mark Darwin's 200th birthday.
6. Check out Leonard Eisenberg's website evogeneao.com — a shortened version of evolutionary genealogy. It's a great site for parents and teachers, and has a link to this amazing Tree of Life graphic that is awfully fun to contemplate. (Click on the site to get a bigger version.)
7. Visit a natural history museum.
8. Find a Darwin Day event going on in your region.
9. Go on a nature hike. Everything you see, whether it's a slug, cat or a bird, do what Eisenberg would do and talk about how that creature is literally, our cousin — 275th million cousin, perhaps, but a cousin nonetheless.
10. Read one of these books:
Charles Darwin by Diane Cook
One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky
Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution by Steven Jenkins
Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Lawrence Pringle
Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer
Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton