November 24th is arguably my favorite day of the year. Not because it’s Thanksgiving this year, or because ski season has officially begun (though both of those are great), but because a couple of pretty incredible events occurred on this day in history. On November 24th, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published AND our favorite human ancestor, Lucy, was discovered! Both moments, though separated by over a century in time and thousands of miles in space, have dramatically shaped our understanding of how we humans came to be here. Let’s briefly visit these spectacular moments in history:
Darwin’s Origin: November 24, 1859
After much stress and fanfare, Darwin’s masterpiece on evolution through natural selection was published in London on November 1859. Approximately 1,200 copies were printed, all of which sold out on the first day. Darwin was a nervous wreck, holed up in his house outside the city, awaiting the response. He was pleased the book sold out, and he spent the next few weeks writing letters and determining which leading scientists were going to join his corner. My favorite part of The Origin of Species is the final paragraph, in which Darwin refutes any negative connotations that could possibly be attached to his descriptions of the “war of nature” and “struggle for existence.” He writes:
There is grandeur in this view of life…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
If you have some downtime this week, you can read The Origin of Species in its entirety through the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s website. In the Origin, Darwin wrote a single line about human evolution. Preferring to largely avoid the topic for the moment, he wrote simply, “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” 118 years later–to the day–a significant beam of that light was uncovered in the Ethiopian desert.
Lucy’s Discovery: November 24, 1974
On the morning of November 24th, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson had a good feeling. As he recalls in the book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Johanson noted this feeling in his diary, writing “feel good” before setting off to search for fossils. The day was a hot one in the barren, Ethiopian desert of Hadar, with temperatures approaching 110 degrees. It was just as Johanson and his colleague Tom Gray turned to leave when Johanson noticed a tiny, human-looking upper arm bone lying in a gully. It was the first fragment of the little hominin that came to be known as Lucy.
In a story that Dr. Johanson has told many times since, Lucy got her name that night as the team celebrated at camp with beers and sing-alongs to their tape of the classic Beatles tune, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. “We were sky-high, you must remember, from finding her,” Johanson explains in his book. Johanson and his team would return to the site the next day and excavate the rest of the skeleton, eventually unearthing one of the most complete hominin individuals ever found. She was eventually christened as a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, and the rest is history.
While we celebrate this wonderful anniversary, I think we can also view it as an opportunity for reflection. What lessons and reminders we can we take away from these historic moments? In my own brief reflection, two basic thoughts come to mind:
- Funding for scientific research matters. Excavations searching for fossils such as Lucy are expensive endeavors. Funding for this and other scientific research is necessary to continue learning about our own evolution.
- Big ideas shape our world. Darwin’s concept of natural selection was built upon extensive research and critical thinking. If we want to encourage big ideas that change the world (and I think we do), we must support education that teaches evidence-based, critical thinking. This is the only way we can understand the changing world around us.
Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers, be sure to raise a glass and toast these incredible moments in time that have helped us understand how we came to be here. For more on these moments in history, be sure to check out Darwin’s Origin, and Johanson’s text Lucy!