Making it Relevant: Discovering Darwin

June 19, 2009

This Friday series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council), will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

Charles Darwin’s relevance should be obvious. Ever since he published his theory of evolution by natural selection, people from all sides have butted heads harder than a pair of drunken ibeks. Yet I would be willing to gamble that most people still haven’t read The Origin of Species or any of Darwin’s subsequent work.

Unfortunately, Darwin falls victim to the most common of accusations poised at the classics: he can be awfully boring. Needless to say, you do not need to agonize over every specific detail he lists in order to get the gist of his observations, or to appreciate the profound impact his findings have had on the humanities. While Darwin catalogues pigeons as specifically as most rap artists catalogue their gold, guns, and girls, we need not bother with every genetic variation to know that when we consider the origins of life in any capacity, we are entering into a yet uncharted realm of the humanities.

Darwin also falls victim to the misconception that one needs to be a scientist to appreciate him – but you need simply to be a human being. Darwin never fully details whether or not evolution is simply the means or the end in itself. And we don’t even need to buy into evolution to understand how important it is to ask where we came from. What is the relationship between science and how we live our lives? Where did we come from, after all? If we evolved by some purely natural, unintelligent process, how do we create meaning in our lives? Can such a theory be reconciled to the notions of the divine we all sometimes feel?

Darwin’s work should not be read in the same way as the polemic bile of some radical proponents of evolution. We must consider him the same way we consider ourselves – as curious explorers of the world. We can ask the same questions he asked and avoid the controversy surrounding evolution because the questions Darwin asks are valuable in and of themselves. It seems strange that so vicious a public debate should continue to rage over a work that many simply have not read, and do not appreciate. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to engage the ideas that continue to shape our lives and our future.

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