Happy birthday Charles Darwin!

New Zealand scientists are celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth – even though he described New Zealand as "not a pleasant place".

Charles Darwin, founder of the theory of evolution, was born 200 years ago today. Events around the world this year celebrate not only the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth but 150 years since the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

As told in Lloyd Spencer Davis’s 2007 book Looking for Darwin, the English naturalist was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1809, the son of a doctor and grandson of two members of the Lunar Society – Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side and Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s. Darwin first studied medicine at Edinburgh, then switched to Cambridge to study for the Anglican clergy. Natural history was his passion, however, and in 1831 he joined Captain Robert FitzRoy as a self-funded naturalist on the HMS Beagle’s five-year voyage around the world. While FitzRoy – later Governor of New Zealand from1843-45 – concentrated on mapping and surveying, Darwin spent much of his time on land, investigating the geology, plants and animals of South America, the Galapagos Islands and other islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Darwin waited two decades after the voyage to publish his findings in On the Origin of Species, in which he proposed the evolution of one species to another through a series of minor incremental changes acted on by a process of natural selection. While commonly referred to as the “theory of evolution”, Darwinian evolution has since been endorsed by 150 years of scientific evidence.

So, thanks Charles Darwin, and happy birthday! To celebrate a year that’s being called Darwin 200, Shropshire Tourism has set up a website where you can upload a photo of yourself (or, even better, a friend or colleague) and watch your face “devolve” into our ancestor Australopithecus afarensis, which lived in East Africa between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago.

You can also send a birthday message to Darwin. At last check there were only two messages from New Zealand, but considering what Darwin wrote about this country in his journal, that’s not surprising.

Darwin didn’t like New Zealand. When he visited the Bay of Islands in 1835, he had few good things to say about the country and as he sailed for Sydney described New Zealand as “not a pleasant place”. Despite what is now considered to be extraordinary flora and fauna – like the flightless kakapo and giant carnivorous land snails, creatures that naturalist George Gibbs has called the “outlandish freaks” of the natural world – Darwin took little notice of New Zealand’s plants and animals. Apart from a few comments about the ferns, he was mostly impressed by the plums and potatoes in the missionaries’ gardens. (For another take on Darwin’s visit to New Zealand, see Waimate, Dave Armstrong’s award-winning entry into the fiction category of the Royal Society-sponsored Manhire Prize, published in the Listener in January this year.)

Still, Darwin’s grumpy comments won’t stop us celebrating the bicentenary of his birth. As well as today's free public symposium at the University of Auckland, the BioEd2009 conference kicks off in Christchurch today, one of six international Darwin 200 symposia. Fittingly, it is sponsored by the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution. Wilson, a New Zealand-born and educated evolutionary biologist, used molecular evidence to advance Darwin’s theories.

Rowan Taylor, Wilson's biographer, says that while working in the United States in the 1960s and 70s, Wilson "used genes and proteins to independently test evolutionary ideas which, up until then, had been based on comparing the anatomies of different species. In so doing, he proved beyond all shadow of a doubt, that Darwin had been correct to think that all species are related and had evolved from common ancestors. He also confirmed Darwin’s theory that humans and chimpanzees are closely related and had evolved relatively recently from a common ape ancestor in Africa.”

Some aspects of Wilson’s work were extremely controversial, particularly his determination that humans and apes shared a common ancestor only five million years ago, a lot more recently that the 20 million years indicated by the fossil record and endorsed by anthropologists. Taylor says that while Wilson's work was seen as a challenge by the Darwinian old guard in the 1970s, the current generation of Darwinians sees it as having enriched and advanced Darwin's original view of life. “It is almost certain that Darwin himself would have approved,” he says.

For some other views on Darwin and his influence check out last year’s Radio New Zealand Darwin Lectures or, if you’re in Christchurch, get along to Collapsing Creation, a new play looking at “the journey Darwin took to overcome his conscience, his fear and his collapsing body to fulfil his ambition and change science, thought and ultimately the world”. It opens today at the James Hay Theatre and will tour major centres later this year.