Wednesday, June 18, 2008

McCain called his wife a C-word!

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Olivia Judson / The New York Times

The party is about to begin.

In a week or so, the trumpets will sound, heralding the start of 18 months of non-stop festivities in honor of Charles Darwin. July 1, 2008, is the 150th anniversary of the first announcement of his discovery of natural selection, the main driving force of evolution. Since 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12), as well as being the 150th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece, “On the Origin of Species” (Nov. 24), the extravaganza is set to continue until the end of next year. Get ready for Darwin hats, t-shirts, action figures, naturally selected fireworks and evolving chocolates. Oh, and lots of books and speeches.

But hold on. Does he deserve all this? He wasn’t, after all, the first person to suggest that evolution happens. For example, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, speculated about it towards the end of the 18th century; at the beginning of the 19th, the great French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck made a strong case for it. Lamarck, however, failed to be generally persuasive because he didn’t have a plausible mechanism — he could see that evolution takes place, but he didn’t know how. That had to wait until the discovery of natural selection.

Natural selection is what we normally think of as Darwin’s big idea. Yet he wasn’t the first to discover that, either. At least two others — a doctor called William Wells, and a writer called Patrick Matthew — discovered it years before Darwin did. Wells described it (admittedly briefly) in 1818, when Darwin was just 9; Matthew did so in 1831, the year that Darwin set off on board HMS Beagle for what became a five-year voyage around the world.

It was a few months after returning from this voyage that Darwin first began to consider seriously the possibility of evolution, or the “transmutation of species.” At this time he knew nothing of Wells’s and Matthew’s accounts of natural selection; indeed, both accounts languished in obscurity until after the “Origin” was published. (After the “Origin” appeared, Matthew wrote to a magazine to draw attention to his statements on the subject; he then proceeded to put “Discoverer of the Principle of Natural Selection” on the title pages of his books. This annoyed Darwin.)

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