What can Charles Darwin teach us about the coronavirus pandemic?

This article was published in the Big Issue on 12 February 2021.

February 12 is the birthday of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest and most influential thinkers who ever lived, and one of Britain’s greatest scientists. To celebrate his life and legacy, an international coalition campaigns for the day to be a public holiday and Humanists UK does its bit by hosting a national Darwin Day Lecture every year.

The obvious way in which the life and example of Charles Darwin calls out to us today is in relation to science. By establishing evolution by natural selection as a central explanatory principle, Darwin demonstrated that through independent thought, biological study, and the gathering of evidence, the enterprise of science could alter not just how we view the world, but how we view ourselves.

Darwin, through scientific investigation of the evidence and the imaginative construction of theories to test against evidence, solved a problem that had seemed intractable. It’s this legacy which Darwin Day celebrates.

In 2021, among the upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all newly aware of the importance of science to our everyday lives. In the past, humanity was most often in blind panic in the face of epidemics, which burned through communities without mercy.

Today, unimaginable human ingenuity in the organised enterprise of medical science has been expended to contain this virus, save life, and preserve our civilisation. We have minimised transmission of the virus by understanding how it is passed on. And in little over a year since the first case of Covid-19 was identified in the UK, science has provided us with three approved vaccines. More than 12 million people have now been vaccinated in this country alone.

With the eyes of the whole world upon them, scientists have not only had to work at unprecedented speed, they’ve had to communicate their work like never before. There has been a major shift in how the public views – and values – science, and an unprecedented demand for scientific knowledge.

In an age of conspiracy-mongers and anti-vaxxers, promoting public trust in science is vital. Communicating the key principles of science – the gathering of data, critical thinking, and the importance of changing your ideas when new evidence is presented – is the only way of defeating misinformation.

But Darwin’s work and legacy has another lesson for us in this pandemic: a moral lesson. Darwin’s discovery of evolution by natural selection radically reshaped our view of humanity, displacing us from the divinely mandated central position human beings held in the pre-modern imagination and connecting us to a much larger family of other animals and plants, all connected on the tree of life.

But it also connected us with each other. This moral lesson is that we are all related in one big human family, not a collection of separately created tribes and nations, and that we need to care for each other and extend our moral sympathies to include every human being. Like the lesson of science, this moral lesson also has enhanced resonance today.

It is not just the enterprise of science, but the enterprise of human kindness and concern for others that has been needed in this pandemic: the concern for others we have shown through our own behaviour to protect them, and the great principle of human solidarity represented by the NHS which treats and cares for every person.

With science motivated by human kindness, we can tackle the biggest challenges facing humanity beyond the pandemic, whether it be climate change or poverty and disease. Darwin Day can give us pause every year to reflect on that fact and commit ourselves to that enterprise.

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