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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.