..."It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change."
- Charles Darwin
It is hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of a man's profound understanding of biology and life than this: Charles Darwin celebrates his 200th birthday tomorrow. To me, this shows that he has, not just theoretical understanding but, practical knowledge. If any of us detractors could live so long, they might have better grounds on which to contest his claim to understand how life works.
Evolution is an idea that - like us hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour in orbit around the sun - is obviously, intuitively, and spectacularly wrong. It is wrong because it defies our own observations and the gut sense that comes from a life time of perception that sees cause and effect through the window of hours or - at best - years but staggers at the notion of causation that plays out over millions and billions of years.
For this reason alone, Darwin's odd conclusion that various life forms evolved is a stunning insight. He saw finches with different characteristics in different environments but he did not, obviously, himself watch the slow evolution of different length and shaped beaks. Darwin's insight came from observation of a result, and from this he worked backwards to a process. Try that. Imagine seeing a cake and figuring out baking.
I find in Darwin's life great inspiration as well. The man worked, on average, only a few hours a day and yet he made one of the greatest contributions to thought of all time. (Further confirmation for me that busy is too often a poor and misleading substitute for productive or - even more importantly - creative.) And the man did not release his great work until he was 50.
One of the many reasons that I admire him is that, for me, the concept of evolution seems to shed huge insight into even social change and development. After reading a great deal of history, I have become a radical incrementalist. That is, I believe that things change radically - but usually in small increments at any given time. Societies evolve.
We have come to apply the concept of evolution to phenomenon as varied as software, language, customs, markets, and technology. It is hard to imagine understanding any dynamic system without the notion of evolution.
As essential as his stunning idea has proven, it still pales in comparison to turning 200.