The legacy of Charles Darwin

On 12 February we celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, one of the most influential thinkers who ever lived, and one of Britain’s greatest scientists. To celebrate his life and legacy, an international coalition, including Humanists UK, campaigns for the day to be a public holiday and Humanists UK awards a Darwin Day medal at our 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 his scientific achievements. By establishing evolution by natural selection as a central explanatory principle, he demonstrated that through independent thought, careful observation, and the gathering of evidence, the enterprise of science can revolutionise not just how we view the world, but how we view ourselves. 

Darwin’s work didn’t just revolutionise science, it has had a profound impact on religion, challenging traditional beliefs about the origin of human life and the role of non-human entities in the natural world. His discoveries ignited debates and discussions that continue to this day. Like Einstein’s, the face and name of Charles Darwin remain widely recognisable, with appearance in novels, books, TV, and film. He appeared on a beautiful Bank of England ten-pound note for nearly twenty years. But what stays with me most from a reading of Darwin’s works is his universal humanism. His scientific discoveries led him towards an idea that is as much his legacy as the theory of evolution – a profound recognition of humanity as one:

‘As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.’

That’s a beautiful moral sentiment, and all the better for being based in reason and observation as well as in sympathy and love.

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