Archive for February, 2009

Not only, but also…

February 4, 2009

Yesterday was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. There were commemorations of this event all over the internet, and why not? He was very important, not just in the field of biology, or even in science generally, but the impact of his work is still being felt around the world. (Mostly by people still blindly in denial over Natural Selection.)

The interesting thing is that I didn’t see anyone talking about the other person who celebrated their 200th birthday yesterday, who’s impact is arguably still being felt, especially by people in denial. Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, was also born on February 12 1809. There was a time when, at least to Americans, his was seen as a more important birth.

To some extent, it’s interesting how closely linked these two are, at least culturally. Darwin’s contribution to science and society was to show that everything is related, and that humans, at least biologically, are nothing special. All the great things about us that raise us above the animals, if only in our own imaginations, are the result of a natural process that can be demonstrated through experiment and through exploration.

Lincoln’s contribution was similar. He started the process that, with any luck, would create a society of equals, essentially saying that the white Europeans of America’s ruling classes (and middle and working classes as well) were nothing special. Or, more importantly, that the African-Americans on the lower rungs of American society were just as special as everyone else.

So, here we are, 200 years later, and Darwin is being lauded, quite rightly, but no-one, not even any Americans, is lauding Lincoln. Darwin is no stranger to overshadowing others. Alfred Russell Wallace’s work on Evolution and Natural Selection is just as important as Darwin’s. While either one of them could have stood alone as the father of modern biology, the fact that they each arrived at the same opinion independently demonstrates the robustness of the theory, and the amount of evidence. But it is Darwin who we remember, although Wallace isn’t really forgotten, Darwin, for whatever reason, remains the public face of Evolution.

Which is kind of my topic for today: how one thing or person can completely obscure something else. It’s a common feeling, especially amongst younger siblings, I am told. But it’s been on my mind of late due to recent events.

Everyone has been concerned about the terrible tragedy ongoing in Victoria at the moment. The fires have been the worst in Australia’s history according to some reports, even the worst natural disaster. The swell of support, and the donations to the relief appeal have been heartwarming, and telling of humanity’s generally generous nature.

And yet, while all this is going on, Northern Queensland is still recovering from the floods of the previous week. The waters seem to be receding from Ingham and other affected towns, but the news reports have dropped away since the start of the fires. Even the subsequent reappearance of Dengue fever, due to the amount of standing water, only really got any coverage in a couple of papers and on The 7:30 Report. The Governor-General, who is from Queensland, is visiting the area today, when she was in Victoria visiting the fire fighters yesterday.

It seems that we are only really capable of focussing on one tragedy at a time. Or maybe it’s just that the floods are old news, and we need to move on to the more recent, shinier tragedy. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem that anyone is raising money to help repair Ingham, or rehouse the displaced population.

Anyway, please don’t forget about the people in Ingham as they start to rebuild. Maybe we should try to remember more than one thing at a time.

Happy 200th Abe!