“the single best idea anyone has ever had” Daniel Dennett, NYR, April, 2020

Charles Darwin; illustration by Siegfried Woldhek

One lesson from all this is that Darwin’s name sells. A less mercantile way of viewing it is that Darwin’s name stands for what Daniel Dennett has called “the single best idea anyone has ever had,” and therefore serves as a portal to scientific and philosophical ruminations of vast depth and breadth. We can’t stop reading and talking about Darwin, 138 years after his death, because the great theory of which he was co-conceiver (with Alfred Russel Wallace) and chief propounder (in On the Origin of Species) was so big and startling and forceful, yet so unfinished when he died in 1882, that there’s always more work to do. We’re still trying to figure out how evolution by natural selection—Darwin’s dangerous idea, — applies to every aspect of life on Earth, from virulence in coronaviruses to human social behavior. It takes a lot of books to follow all those tendrils out to their end points, and a lot of other books to examine Darwin’s digressions and lesser fancies (pigeon breeding, the taxonomy of barnacles, the facial expressions of orangutans, climbing plants), his place in scientific history, and his continuing influence on how we understand the living world and humanity’s place within. (From the New York Review of Books, of April 23, 2020)

Post script, this from the opening pages of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth for, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin.

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