Thoughts on Darwin’s Bicentenary

By B. R. Gowani

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin who was born on the 12th of February, 1809 and died on 19th April, 1882.

Sometimes, events have a way of changing not only the path of history but the way human beings perceive the world, or even themselves.

Seemingly trivial things like digits can have a tremendous effect on our lives. Take for example, shunya or zero, which the Europeans got through the Arabs who got it from the South Asians. Zero represents nothing, yet it affects everything. There would have been no binary code system and no computers, as we know them today, without zero – pretty unthinkable, but true.

In 1610, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) changed the geocentric view, that the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around the earth. He was enhancing the findings of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who had earlier made earth a part of the heliocentric solar system (that is, our Sun is the center of our solar system and earth orbits around the Sun).

When Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to be in space on April 12, 1961 and the first person to orbit the earth, all humankind’s perception of space changed forever.
Later, when Neil Armstrong became the first person to land on the Moon on July 21, 1969, the possibility of inhabiting another planet didn’t seem like the impossible dream it was before the landing.

It is not easy to compare the great brains of history. However it would not be an exaggeration to say that it was Darwin, more than anyone else, who changed our thinking forever on the most vital subject of our existence on this earth. Who are we and how did we come into being?

Darwin brought human beings down from the pedestal where they had enthroned themselves (as the central creation of God) and showed them their true roots — that human beings are nothing but a branch in the evolutionary tree, and that they are related to apes. Indeed, they were once apes.

The religious establishment in England at Darwin’s time did not approve of his ideas. However last year, on behalf of the Church of England, Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown issued an apology:

“Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.”Full text here

Lack of Understanding and Myths

Technological advances have enabled us to understand many mysteries and have led us to discard many theories our ancestors believed in due to the absence of knowledge of Nature and its workings.

For instance, to explain the changing of seasons, the Greeks had formulated this story:

One day Persephone was abducted by Hades (the Romans calls him Pluto), the God of the underworld. Her mother goddess Demeter (who was also Hades’ sister) was unable to rescue her and had to ask her brother/husband Zeus to rescue their daughter from their brother. Persephone was allowed to return back to the earth for six months (in some versions it is nine months) and had to return back to the underworld for the rest of the months because she had committed the act of eating pomegranate seeds in the underworld. When Persephone returned to her, Demeter was very happy and allowed the gifts of spring and summer seasons. Persephone’s departure made Demeter sad and hence she withdrew the gifts, causing the seasons of autumn and winter.

This was a good story for explaining natural phenomenon that was beyond the understanding of people of the time. But when we come to know the real reason for the changing of seasons (earth’s axis), it is natural to expect that we’ll integrate it as a part of our knowledge and regard their story as the myth that it was.

Let us take another myth where the goddess Hera, sister/wife of the god Zeus is tricked into nursing an abandoned child Heracles or Hercules (actually son of Zeus and Alcmene). The baby sucked so hard that Hera pushed him away causing the breast milk to spurt out forcefully. This was believed to have created the Milky Way Galaxy full of hundreds of billions of stars. We too would have believed this fantastic story if we hadn’t made progress in learning about the true nature of space through modern technology, including satellites and telescopes.

Nature Didn’t, but Humans Did

Thousands of gods and goddesses can be found in mythological books, and sometimes even in artwork. And it should be like that because it allows variety and creativity. However, when the religions became more powerful, they began exerting their influence to the detriment of progressive and intellectual thought in all walk of life. They try to arrest the evolving of mental curiosity of hundreds of millions of people through fear of afterlife and other such nonsense. (The political and business forces join hands with them for their own commercial and political motives.)

The religious establishments are never keen on letting people explore Godly things as this could jeopardize their establishments. Most of us human beings are curious by nature and would like to know about various things. Just lie down under a clear starry night and tens of questions will pop up in your brain. What are the stars? What are the shooting stars? How did they come into existence? Who made them? How far are they? What are they made up of? How many of them are there? And so on. A child’s mind is a curiosity-computer which is always on, to know and explore things. If their curiosity is encouraged, then their minds could blossom else they wither and settle for the things acceptable to the establishment. (I remember my little niece and nephew had many questions when growing up.) And if out of frustration, they rebel, the rebellion has no foundation as they lack proper understanding. Another essential factor is for there to be opportunities available for them to apply their knowledge in the fields they desire.

The present human beings evolved through various stages when finally Nature permitted them to branch out of the ape family. It does not mean that this path was smooth or that it was not a painful transition. The path was fraught with harassment and injury, with diseases, plagues, floods, earthquakes, etc. And yet they finally made it to the Homo Sapiens stage of evolution.

But when it comes to fellow human beings — those with resources, power, and influence – they have not been as kind as nature. Or that they have been more ruthless than nature has been.

Suffice it to say, that the world has produced many great brains but millions more have been denied a chance to evolve fully due to religious and human (commercial, political) blockages.

B. R. Gowani can be reached at

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