These days it seems almost any field of modern biology seeks historic credibility through some chink of early recognition in the works of Charles Darwin. This is not just a reflection of Darwin's enormous international standing, or how influential and prolific he was across many fields, it is also because we now recognise natural selection as the underpinning force on which all biodiversity blossoms. Whether studying weevils, elephants or blood cells, how organisms got to where they are is relevant and informs us about how things may change in the future.
Friday 12th Feb 2016 is International Darwin Day. The objective of this celebration, as described by the organizers, is to "inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin. It will be a day of celebration, activism, and international cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being."
I wonder what Charles Darwin was doing on 12th February 1838. Perhaps he was busy unpacking and cataloguing the specimens he had painstakingly acquired during his now famous Voyage of the Beagle as slowly the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle revealed themselves to him.
As the theory of natural selection began to formulate in Darwin's mind (and of course he was not entirely alone in this), he was also certain that beside giving us new insights into the origin of our own species and indeed the religious constructs that his theory challenged, he knew that this knowledge would profoundly influence our understanding of human behaviour, as well as our origins.
He realised that fundamentally the behavioural adaptations that characterize us and enabled us to evolve into modern Homo sapiens sapiens, are the result of the same evolutionary process that shaped behaviour in other animal species. Placing us on this continuum was of course the most controversial aspect of Darwin's work.
There can be no doubt that a good deal of intellectual bravery was required to advance this case within Victorian Britain. However, often the historical emphasis on this important work has been on the physical - how we evolved into upright apes and then eventually into pre-modern humans. Whilst the (much later) discovery of DNA has since enabled us to grasp aspects of this physical evolution, there was a subtler component about behaviour and motivations which Darwin knew his work embodied.
He knew that behaviour was an important player in the evolutionary game. He was also aware that not all behaviours were inherited and some appeared to be acquired (learnt from each other) and he noted that some behaviour may be beneficial to the group rather than the individual.
What is staggering is that it wasn't until some 126 years after the publication of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' that two scientists (Boyd and Richardson) finally grasped the nettle and began to unravel how human culture influences the evolutionary process within humans. This they called 'dual inheritance theory'. In other words, as well as natural selection through genes, learning from each other has a huge influence on whom we select as a parter, nurture, distain or even harm.
So on this special day to celebrate intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, let's also spare a thought for all those subtle (even unconscious) things that we learn from each other on a daily basis, which make us the remarkable, miraculous social creatures that we are.
Happy Darwin Day!
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