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Darwin Does It February 11, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Article Review, science.
Tags: , , ,

darwinjpgThis week marks the culmination of our trifecta of evolution discussions here at Valence. February 12th is Darwin Day (his 200th birthday, except I don’t like counting dead peoples’ birthdays, do you?) and this year is the 150th anniversary of his release of On The Origin of Species.  The media is awash in Darwin controversy and I can’t help but weigh in.

I suppose statements like “evolution kicks ass” probably already gave away my opinion that the Theory of Evolution is not only good and sound science but also is the kind of idea that has literally revolutionized what it means to be human.  Therefore, I’ll stop beating the intelligent design horse this week and instead spend a bit of time exploring this character Darwin and his discerning idea called natural selection.

(Proceed with caution, the next bit may appear dry but it won’t hurt too bad, I promise.)

Simply put, natural selection recognizes that no two individuals of a species are exactly the same.  When competing for shared but limited resources (whether it be food or potential mates) one will have a slight advantage over the other by default.  Those individuals best equipped to reproduce in their natural environment will be those most likely to pass on those advantageous characteristics to their offspring.  Over many generations favored features statistically come to dominate the population.  If, perchance, a new adaptation were to better equip an individual to compete than that feature would eventually become pervasive in the population.

I confess, when looked at in hindsight Darwin’s theory of natural selection doesn’t appear to be so revolutionary.  Sounds like common sense.  Thomas Huxley is famously quoted as saying “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” when he heard of it.

The reason Darwin’s idea was so radical is that he defined a completely natural “pressure” that enables random physical change to accumulate in a species with the appearance of a defined direction (ie giraffes’ necks getting longer or human skin changing tone).  If two groups of the same species are separated and subjected to different pressures for long enough they accumulate different physical features and eventually will become different species.  Run the clock backwards and we find each species sharing some common branch point, a common ancestor.

The problem Darwin had is that his theory required a reliable mechanism by which parents could endow their offspring with inherited traits but also one that would randomly mutate from time to time to allow for variation in physical features that could be acted on by natural selection.  It wouldn’t be until the 1920’s when an obscure monk’s (Mendel’s)  experiments on peas would be rediscovered and kick-start genetics and even later in the 1950’s as DNA was discovered that Darwin would have his mechanism.

Darwin surely didn’t have all the details mechanisms exactly right but his overarching concepts have still held up surprising well.  Even so it’s really been the persistent research of the past 150 years building upon Darwin’s foundation which has solidified evolution as scientific reality.  This fact has some people saying we need to lose the fascination with Darwin and start paying more attention to the breadth of evolutionary research since his time.

The New York Times ran an essay this week by Carl Safina called “Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live” in which he essentially argues that by linking evolution with Darwin too tightly we give the false impression that this beautiful theory lives and dies by just one man alone.  Safina is really making PR appeal to the scientific community (which is interesting in a week dedicated to the celebration of Darwin’s contribution to science).  By seeking to downplay the importance of Darwin (and especially “isms” like Darwinism) he aims to highlight the last 150 years of research which he feels, if the public could understand, would not so flippantly be denied or ignored by so many.

…our understanding of how life works since Darwin won’t swim in the public pool of ideas until we kill the cult of Darwinism. Only when we fully acknowledge the subsequent century and a half of value added can we really appreciate both Darwin’s genius and the fact that evolution is life’s driving force, with or without Darwin.

I agree that we should never be deifying a historical figure like Darwin and that any perception that scientists ‘believe’ in the theory of evolution as a cult is seriously misguided.  The idea that evolution is “Darwin’s theory” betrays a deep misunderstanding of the depth confirming evidence found since the 1860’s and only by setting Darwin in the proper context do his advances actually carry the weight of genius instead of just myth.  But is celebrating Darwin’s achievements this week really as dangerous as Safina implies?

Safina correctly recognizes that the mid 1800’s were already broiling over with bits and pieces of the evolutionary puzzle (like common decent and inherited features) which were waiting to be put together into a unified theory.  Darwin didn’t invent all the components of evolution but instead recognized the mechanism by which evolution could occur, natural selection.  There is no doubt that had Darwin not thought of natural selection someone soon after him would.  In fact, in fear of being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlined an almost identical theory, Darwin (after mulling over his theory for 20 years) was forced to publish The Origin before he actually felt ready.  Evolution “…was an idea whose time had come, with or without Darwin.”

However, I disagree with Safina that celebrating Darwin’s contribution to science is dangerous.  Evolutionary theory may have been inevitable with or without the historical character “Charles Darwin” but it would have certainly been impossible without a man (or woman) with the character traits that Darwin embodied.  His unique obsession with naturalism coupled with an absurd dedication to the tedious methodology of science equipped him to tackle a problem that no one before had been able solve.  In a way, celebrating Darwin is not elevating a man but instead is recognizing the fruits of the scientific process itself.

Respect for Darwin is as much for the disciplined and scientific way he addressed the problem as it is for the discovery itself. When we celebrate Darwin, we are not cheering for a man who got lucky one day, but for someone who represents many of what we consider scientific virtues: curiosity, rigor, discipline, meticulous observation, experiment, and intellectual courage. (PZ Myers, Pharyngula)

Darwin was writing and thinking at the height of the Victorian Era.  To call his ideas, which gave teeth to a material explanation of human existence, controversial would be a gross understatement considering the religious fervor of his time.  Hell, the religious fervor of our time is still pretty feverish.  I have to admit that I admire his resolve to chase truth down trails that he knew would not be popular.  But even more than his resolve was the tangible weight he carried to be cautious and meticulous with evidence before jumping to conclusions.  I want to think and process like that, with a burden for the utmost care and an open-mind to follow the evidence where it leads.  I still find that a cause worth celebrating.



1. Matt - February 11, 2009

Well, I was going to post a link to Safina’s article when I read it the other day, but I guess I don’t need to. I thought he was full of crap, myself. Well, maybe I just am not aware of some set of problems that he was trying to solve by separating Darwin from “evolution”. It sounded like a solution in search of a problem to me.
Besides, how else would I get two technological advances at once?

2. Philip - February 11, 2009

I’m sorry if I open a can of worms here, but I wanted to pick up on a point that Casey made in the previous post’s comments that was not discussed later (because of some very good other topic threads). Given the nature of this post, though, I hereby grant myself can-opening permission.

One of the points Casey made about the disturbing implications of natural selection for creationism in general is that it suggests a phylogenetic relationship between humans and other species. In particular, evolution suggests that some ancestor of ours belongs to a different species. However (this is the important part), species aren’t categorical. You don’t have chimps one generation, and then humans the next, or even less drastic changes like Neanderthal one generation and Homo Sapiens the next (okay, we’re probably not really direct descendants of Neanderthals, but you get my point). Instead, evolutionary theory describes a series of very very gradual changes.

So, in tracing back the lineage of humans, there’s no point at which we could say, “Aha! Humans make their cameo!” (Interested people can read the Wikipedia page on The Species Problem.) The reason this is tricky for creationists, I think, is that there’s no clear point of distinction between humans and other lifeforms. Since we (as a species) are a gradual development, what does that mean for theories of redemption, God’s protection, etc.? I find it difficult to reconcile with the Christian faith that God loves and has some unique plan for humans if the category of “human” is itself undefined.

As Darwin said, “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other … It does not essentially differ from the word variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms.”

3. bear - February 12, 2009

Phillip, your point is a good one–this is why the study of civilizations is crucial to our understanding of “aha” moments. For example–10,000 years ago–farming started. AHA! Is the difference?

We are unaware of our evolution.


4. Philip - February 12, 2009

I suppose if God only cares about farmers, then this would be a landmark. Of course, he probably has a thing for carpenters, too, right? Maybe it’s just blue-collar workers . . .

5. bear - February 12, 2009

Too many offramps on this freeway–although–carpentry keeps one busy from being able to hunt, gather, or even farm–thus–free market is born…uh oh.

6. Eric - February 12, 2009

Another small-but-not-irrelevant digression on this Darwin Day: there’s an interesting post on Language Log today about Darwin’s ruminations on the evolution of language, one of the lynchpins of his overall argument about the place of humans in evolution. According to the author (W. Tecumseh Fitch, a prominent researcher in the area), Darwin’s thoughts on the topic have in many cases only recently been shown to have some serious empirical support.

Incidentally, the tree-like branching image that is often invoked in explanations of evolution was an idea Darwin borrowed directly from the linguistics of his time, which sought to describe how languages change over time and are related to each other in certain ways. The same problem that Philip brings up above (how to define a species) is also very much a problem in this kind of linguistics: when does a variety of a language become sufficiently different from another to become a separate language? To make this more concrete, consider: when did the variety of Latin spoken in Spain become Spanish, as distinguished from the Latin spoken in Italy that became Italian, the Latin spoken in France that became French, and so on? Many linguists would argue that it doesn’t make sense to treat the difference between ‘Spanish’ and ‘French’ any more significantly than the difference between the variety of English spoken in Southern California surfing communities and the variety of English spoken in rural Scotland.

7. bear - February 16, 2009

Somebody say something controversial!!! Let’s get it going. I will try. I heard that Darwin never actually sailed anywhere–the S.S. Beagle was in fact, his dog–and over some funny tea, Darwin and S.S. concocted a number of poignant theories. Makes sense if you think about it.


8. caseyww - February 16, 2009


I feel your pain. I have to reconcile with myself that I can’t sustain being controversial every week. Everyone once and a while I have to say something reasonable. Just wait, I’ll be posting this week on the fallibility of the Bible. There shouldn’t be any landmines there 🙂

9. bear - February 16, 2009

There it is—–by “Everyone once and a while I have to say something reasonable,’ you imply that this post about Darwin is reasonable?…(remove glove, slap face). How dare you.

Looking forward that light topic you mentioned.

10. Matt - February 17, 2009

Hey all. I’ve been busy lately, but I’ll throw some chum in the water. I don’t anticipate being able to follow-up on this anytime soon, so think of this as a drive-by posting.
@Philip – I kinda have to laugh at this one. Christians don’t even agree on which humans “redemption” applies to (see for example, Arminianism vs. Calvinism, or Christian Universalism); this is without even asking “What constitutes a human?”.
@Eric – I speak English (natively) and Spanish (non-natively). I have, at least once, been mistaken for a native Spanish speaker by a native Spanish speaker. I do not speak French. One time I tried to buy two croissants in Paris, and had to just hand over a fistful of cash because I couldn’t understand what the girl behind the counter was saying to me. (Side note: French counting is a little weird – “70” is pronounced “soixante-dix”, or literally, “sixty-ten”. 71-79 are “sixty-eleven” through “sixty-nineteen”. “80” is “quatre-vingts”, or “four twenties”. “90” is “quatre-vingts-dix”, etc. I did not know that when I tried to buy the croissants.) So I have serious problems with the suggestion that the differences between French and Spanish is equivalent to the difference between two English dialects.
@Casey – in your last post you said “Mostly I believe there are consequences to faith for the idea that I share an ancestor with Bonobos and an even more distant ancestor with Platypus. The human species is not the pinnacle of evolution…we are not the focus nor the darlings of creation. No matter how much I remind myself that the Bible need not be read literally I can’t escape that this is a fundamentally different story than that told by the Bible.” I disagree with your conclusions here, I think (perhaps I merely misunderstand you). I don’t know about “darlings” or “pinnacles” (which imply a hierarchy), but I think humans are different than other animals. Do Pica Picas recognize themselves in the mirror (https://valenced.wordpress.com/2008/12/31/2008-top-science-part-2/)? Yes. Do cetaceans and certain primates possess rudimentary language and tool usage? Yes. But how many other species have produced:
Marshall Amplifiers
The Internet
novels that should have been awesome but actually kinda suck about a private eye, except he’s a wizard
Space travel
Quantum Theory
The Brandenburg Concertos
These are not just quantitative differences – they are qualitative. Those of you tempted to write “Yes, but animals have never created slavery, or murder, or…” please note that I specifically rejected the concept of “pinnacle” earlier, and am merely asserting “difference”. The fact that we have created slavery, etc., supports the difference claim.
Now, Antony mentioned in the comments for the last post (Casey, if we’re all still talking about the last post, perhaps you shouldn’t have posted this new one yet ;)) that perhaps we’re only the first species to have evolved to this point of distinction. That’s an interesting thought, and one that bears some thinking about. I haven’t thought enough about it yet to give a good answer. Somebody ask me again in a week or two. I’d be interested in others’ thoughts about it. Others’ thoughts that also mention Startide Rising get extra points.
How’s that? Chummy enough for all you carcharodons out there?

11. Matt - February 17, 2009

Argh, don’t you hate it when you catch a grammatical error in your post after you post it? “differences between French and Spanish is equivalent” should have been “difference…”. Sorry.

12. Eric - February 18, 2009

@Matt in #10:

I didn’t say that there was no difference in terms of mutual intelligibility between Spanish and French on the one hand and two dialects of English on the other. Whether two people can understand each other in conversation is just one of many aspects of language that linguists consider in their assessment of the relatedness between languages. (Nation-states do, too: Swedes and Norwegians, or Serbs and Croats, understand each other quite well, and yet they “speak different languages”; on the other hand, what we call “Arabic” or “Chinese” spans a lot of mutually unintelligible language varieties.)

Granted, mutual intelligibility is the single most salient aspect to non-linguists, so I should have been more careful in the wording of my comment. My point was simply that the criteria that linguists use to place “languages” on a tree of relatedness are squishy just like the criteria that biologists use to place “species” on a tree of relatedness are: “different species/languages” is not sharply-defined. Language varieties that we think of as “closely-related languages” (e.g., Spanish and French) are, by some measures at least, no more distant in the tree from language varieties that we think of as “dialects of the same language”.

In any case: you can have “serious problems” with (your misunderstanding of) my point all you want, based on your experience as a (non-native) Spanish speaker buying croissants in France, but until we have the details of a parallel experience of a born-and-bred SoCal surfer buying haggis in rural Scotland, neither of us really knows how significant the difference will be (if at all).

Also: “differences … are” would actually have been more appropriate than “difference … is” in this particular case, but I digress.

13. Matt - February 18, 2009

@Eric – Is “squishy” a technical term? 😉 You’re absolutely right, of course; I should have realized that there are other considerations besides intelligibility when comparing languages. And yes, Spanish and French are closely related – even a non-linguist who spends any amount of time with them can see that. What’s more, I wasn’t even talking about the meat of your point (the parallels between species and languages), so your rebuke/correction is well-received.
So the question is this, I suppose: How do we get a surfer to Scotland? I think it will help if we don’t tell him what haggis is beforehand.

14. Eric - February 18, 2009

Or, tell him that haggis is “kinda like a burrito”. 😉

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