Happy Darwin Day! This View of Life invited our readers to pitch in and help us celebrate Darwin Day 2016! In addition to remembering the life of the great naturalist, Darwin Day is a time to pay tribute to the values Charles Darwin embodied: intellectual curiosity, close observation, scientific thinking, truth-seeking, and the courage to keep asking the big questions.

The big questions we invited people to answer were:
What does evolution mean to you?
Why is it important?
What is the most important thing we all need to know about it?
How does it apply to our everyday life?

Below is a selection of the responses we received.

That it's still happening! When I teach my students about evolution I remind them that we are LIVING it... we are evolving and adapting...it's not all about fossil hominins! -- Geraldine Fahy

The most important thing to understand about evolution is that it is not a goal-oriented phenomenon. -- Caitlin S

Everything we are as humans, as is evident with all other species, is owed to how big we are compared to our environment. Just how long hundreds of millions of years really is often escapes us when we compare that time frame to our own short lives. Exponential expansions of populations, coupled with the fractal nature of ecosystemic relationships, are often underestimated as linear relationships. Every examination of every component of evolution must begin with a close (or far away) examination of proportionality. Economic studies could really benefit from this demarcation as well. -- Jonas Ratay

People should understand that they are mostly animals and not walking brains. --Didier Vanmaercke

We need to urgently apply Darwin's big idea to our own species, which a previous generation of academics maligned given the Nazis’ abuse of the half-baked ideas of social Darwinism. We have gone to the opposite extreme of "anti-Darwinism". This is tragic, because ultimately our Darwinian nature has served our survival, the very fact that we exist. The anti-Darwinian attitude, which now dominates academia and thus politics, is hurting us. We must admit that human consciousness also evolved. -- Roger Hicks

Evolution is the science that proves to my mind what my heart already knows: That all creatures are my brothers and sisters. -- Phil Stokoe

Evolution explains everything about the world in which we live. We will go through this life confused about why things occur unless we grasp its meaning. The moment that we begin to see all of the world within an evolutionary framework will be the moment that everything falls into place. -- Doug Hoxworth

Evolution can happen any time the conditions for natural selection are met: variability, heritability, differential reproduction. It doesn't matter what kind of entity you are: organism, cell, group or gene. Evolution happens if those conditions are met. -- Athena Aktipis

Evolution by its very nature has an Achilles’ heel; it is unable to tell the future. Humans are not the culmination of any directed process; we are not ‘designed’ for the current era. Most of our attributes were selected long ago, when we were hunters and gatherers. Most decision-making was intuitive, and our ancestors were rarely constrained by sustainability and plans for the distant future. Reproductive selection favoured leaving a large number of descendants, and encouraged competition between males for status, a proxy for the capacity to be a good provider, but the forerunner of modern-day conspicuous consumption. Our evolved intelligence has brought us agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, cities and capitalism, but we are failing to deal with burgeoning population, diminishing resources, increasing pollution and climate change. If our civilization is to survive we must recognise that evolution can be a fabulous gift or a poisoned chalice. We must recognise our evolved psychological and cognitive limitations, and make a concerted effort to encourage the reflection, education, cooperation and progressive policies that may yet save us from ourselves. -- Helen Camakaris

Evolution connects all living things in an unbroken causal chain of adaptation by natural selection. Evolution informs our understanding of medicine, the environment and life itself. Without Charles Darwin, his contemporaries, and intellectual descendants, I fear society would have been derailed from the path set by the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, certain cultures or groups still resist evolution. Everyone should know that there are no rungs on an evolutionary ladder where 'inferior' organisms or people are placed. Evolution created a branching tree where all living species are cousins of one another, each adapted to its own environment. There is no evolutionary ladder in nature. Our bodies, at a fundamental level, are divided into parasite or host. This means at a fundamental level that we are not the consistent wholes some philosophies would have us be. Understanding that we are a collection of evolved conflicts past and present will help our species override and cure the most troubling parts of our natures. -- Will Brown

Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is about the generation of biodiversity in nature. Because it offers a mechanism that accounts for all life in the absence of supernatural intervention, it is also used to refute Biblical accounts of human origins.

But Darwinism has done more than just show us how living creatures changed through generations. It’s now central to how we as a species understand ourselves, our history and our culture, so that even our belief systems such as religion are a function of evolution.

Over the course of human history, civilizations have used a host of miraculous reasons to explain the inexplicable. People continue to be comforted in these explanations and encouraged that everything happens for a reason. This explains the range of organised religions that have evolved over time. Some have died out and others have persisted. Some are closely related while others are quite distinct, but what is consistent is how parochial all these stories were to their original context. Psychologist and theologian, Justin L. Barrett expresses it in terms of, “The way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which we are born”.

Human brain evolution has made us inherently curious. Coupled with a propensity for patterns and design, it is hardwired into our cognitive faculties to recognize structural design in nature and interpret a purpose for natural phenomena.

While we use reason and logic mainly for problem solving, myths and religions are likely by-products of our applying those faculties in interpretation of the natural world. Sometimes we question these untestable premises and that is called “philosophy”. Sometimes we add religion back to it to make it theology.

Science and religion have different starting points. A better understanding of the psychology of faith is needed. For this we must again rely upon cutting edge technology --CAT, MRI and PET scans, -- that can all be used to reveal different aspects of internal brain activity and function. Renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson’s has recognised that, “… we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences.”

There is a Catch-22 in the question of why religion persists if it is so transparently a figment of our imagination. While a large number of people do apply logic and conclude that religion doesn't add anything to their world for whatever personal reasons, most people in the world are religious, following one or other religion or faith system. This is not surprising. People are genetically programmed to do so.

Given this we should recognise the diversity of human thought which I talk about here. -- Julian Derry


Illustration via JBarnum - available for purchase on Etsy.