illustrated portrait of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin -- born 200 years ago today -- remains one of the strongest influences on modern society. His theory of evolution, detailed in On the Origin of Species, sculpts our understanding of what it means to be human more than any other idea outside of religion. We live in Darwin’s shadow, and it casts lingering controversies.

The most obvious of these controversies is over challenges to the role of evolution in educational curricula. That debate flared again just last month in Texas, and has been the topic of high-profile trials from Scopes in 1923 to Dover just three years ago.

Two other contentious conversations about genes and society also continue to haunt America: our legacy of race and racism, and proposals to genetically design our future descendents.

Race and ethnicity have confounded American society from its inception. Before Darwin, racial oppression and inequality were typically justified by invoking a religious “natural order.” After Darwin, “competitive advantage” and “natural selection” provided secular alternatives: In short, whites ruled because they were biologically superior to others.

Around the start of the twentieth...