Updated: Feb 9, 2019
For some years now, February 12 (the birthday of Charles Darwin) has been designated "Darwin Day." Darwin Day is a commemoration of Darwin's life and work as well as a celebration of science in general. Although some would consider the idea of such a commemoration offensive, I will here seek to provide a more evenhanded look at "Darwin Day" and what it stands for.
Charles Darwin as a person is both demonized by some in the creationist community and idolized by some in the evolutionary community, but let's explore some middle ground. Although Darwin held some racist beliefs, he supported the abolition of slavery and his racism was actually less pronounced than was common for his era. Although evolutionary theory fueled certain social and religious harms, we cannot lay all the blame on Darwin. In fact, Darwin neglected to publish his evolutionary research for many years due to his own (and his wife's) consciousness of the sociological and theological implications. Thus, contrary to what some may think, the destruction of Christianity was not Darwin's motive when formulating his theories (although he did, apparently, end up losing his Christian faith and did not recant his beliefs/theories on his deathbed as some have mythologized).
Furthermore, Darwin's scientific research did contribute to the formation of certain well-established scientific theories in the field of biology. The theory of microevolution–the idea that the traits of a species can change to an extent as the species adapts to its environment–provided answers for certain biological questions and was (and still is) well supported by the evidence. Microevolution is important to Creationist paradigms, as it shows how all of the species we see today could have originated from those brought on the ark during Noah's Flood. So, ironically, creationist scientists could also be said to be evolutionists in the way that they agree with microevolution!
However, when microevolution is extrapolated across a timeline of millions of years, mainstream evolutionary scientists claim that we get macroevolution. Macroevolution is the idea that evolutionary changes result in totally different kinds of organisms. Macroevolution, informally known as "molecules-to-man" evolution, cannot be directly observed as microevolution can. Today, many mainstream evolutionists deny any distinction between microevolution and macroevolution. They maintain that macroevolution can be logically inferred from the unlimited accumulation of traits through microevolution over millions of years–thus trying to negate any meaningful distinction between the two.
Ultimately, Darwin's work had a major effect on the way people think about science and theology and laid the foundation for a new way of viewing the world. Darwin's theories may have provided good answers for certain biological questions, but his ideas led to a dramatic boost in the perceived authority of naturalistic science in the popular imagination and ignited one of the most venomous controversies in the history of science and theology. In the end, even though some would deny Darwin a place on the list of great scientists, he is, for better and for worse, one of the most broadly influential.
As far as choosing the birthday of a famous scientist as a holiday to celebrate science, Darwin remains a controversial choice. One immediately thinks, "Why do we not celebrate 'Einstein Day' or 'Galileo Day' or 'Linnaeus Day'?" My guess is that, at least for some, Darwin and his theory of evolution represent the ability of science to become the ultimate authority and the final triumph of secular humanism. Darwin and his theory may be thought to represent the final liberation of science from any theological constraints, thus permitting science to form its own complete worldview: one that allows scientists to try to explain reality without permitting a divine foot in the door. As Richard Dawkins wrote in his book The Blind Watchmaker:
"Although atheism may have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
To many of those celebrating on Feb. 12th, perhaps this is what the work of Charles Darwin means.
Ultimately, it is a good idea to take a balanced view of Charles Darwin, who, like all of us, had his accomplishments and his shortcomings. However, there needs to be an honest re-evaluation of the meaning and value of Darwin Day celebrations. Although Darwin’s research had some positive impacts, choosing him as the centerpiece for the celebration of science does more to alienate those who disagree with Darwin’s main conclusions than it does to elevate good research. In the end, if a more gracious and inclusive scientific dialogue can be fostered by retiring Darwin Day, then that is a small price to pay.