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12 February is Darwin’s Day! 

On 12 February, scientists and activists celebrate Darwin’s Day! The great biologist Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809. It is an opportunity for numerous initiatives in favour of education to science, to explain evolutionary theory and fight creationist obscurantism.

The website DarwinDay lists many of the initiatives implemented in English-speaking countries.

In France, since 2007, the Ligue de l’Enseignement has been taking part in the event, usually in partnership with the Charles Darwin Institute International (ICDI). ICDI is affiliated to the Tarn Federation of the French Ligue de l’Enseignement. The Institute’s activities are fourfold and complementary: publication of the complete, chronological and scholarly edition of Darwin’s work in French, management of a documentation centre of 8,000 volumes, organisation of scientific meetings and training courses, as well as a Darwin exhibition.

It is an understatement to say that Charles Darwin’s work has had a great influence in the sciences, both biological and human, as well as in the debate on ideas. Making Darwin’s true views known is no mean feat.

A book entitled “Darwin n’est pas celui qu’on croit” (Darwin is not who we think he is) by ICDI director Patrick Tort has been published by the Cavalier Bleu. There is no shortage of clichés and misconceptions of Darwin’s work! Among them: “Man descends from the monkey”. Of course, Darwin never uttered such a nonsensical statement. He demonstrated that man and monkey are cousins in the family tree of living beings. Nor did he transpose “capitalism into nature” or attribute human feelings to animals. He was not merely agnostic, but a de facto atheist.

Above all, Darwin had nothing to do with the misnamed ‘social Darwinism’ theorised by Herbert Spencer, based on the distorted notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’, nor with Francis Galton’s version of eugenics, which heralded Nazi insane and criminal ideology. Darwin was not a racist, even though he used the term “race”. Similarly, his use of the equally dubious notion of ‘half-breed’ as a ‘mixture of races’ did not imply contempt. On the contrary, Darwin was resolutely committed to action against colonial practices and even more so against slavery.

His complete work shows that the human species has distinguished itself from other animal species and has survived thanks to the tendency of social instincts to triumph. By ensuring the survival of groups that implement social instincts in a comprehensive way, natural selection leads to civilisation in humans. Civilisation builds itself by abandoning natural selection. This progressive elimination of “natural” elimination was powerfully theorised by Darwin in his 1871 work “The Descent of Man”, an essential complement to “The Origin of Species” of 1859.

Patrick Tort has dubbed this highly humanistic thesis as the ‘reversive effect of evolution’ in his reference book ‘The Darwin Effect’ (Editions du Seuil).

(article by Ligue de l’Enseignement, France)