The Evolution Revolution Date: 02/12/2009
Dr. Jerry Stinner / Dean, College of Science and Mathematics
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the most important book ever written in science. Coincidentally, February 12th, 2009 is the 200th birthday of its author, Charles Darwin. I was delighted to be asked by the staff of the Daily Sundial to share a few of my thoughts at this momentous time in history. Below is the unedited version.
During a brief 10 month period ending in May, 1859 this self taught amateur naturalist sat in his study and wrote feverishly virtually from memory a 155,000 word “abstract”. He called it “my abominable volume” because the writing was so all consuming, hurried and painful. He had, after all, been secretly composing and refining his ideas for more than 20 years. He was in the midst of writing a thick detailed multivolume treatise when, fortunately for us, a young naturalist by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace hit upon the same core idea—evolution by natural selection whereby those individuals best adapted to their environments survive in the greatest numbers and leave the most offspring in subsequent generations. Feeling proprietary and urged on by a few close associates who knew of his revolutionary ideas, Darwin was obsessed with the need to publish quickly.
The book, titled On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, was an instant success. The first printing was in November and all 12,500 copies sold on the first day. The book went through five more editions during Darwin’s lifetime and has never been out of print. It ranks among the top 10 best selling books of all time, which is astonishing given its scientific content. It is still revered by scientists today, even though it was written for a nonscientific audience.
Charles Darwin was a gifted scientist and writer. Depending upon how you count such things, he authored 19 books covering a variety of topics including reef formation, domestication of plants and animals, barnacles and earthworms. Several of his books were best sellers and still in print today. He became a one man publishing phenomenon. But On the Origin of Species was his masterpiece and would become synonymous with the name Darwin, making his name a household word today. From the start the book sent shock waves through Victorian England and then gradually across the globe. Charles Darwin, who by all accounts was a kind, sweet tempered and generous man, was quickly labeled by theologians as the most dangerous man in England. This is ironic, given that he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Cambridge fully expecting to become a country parson.
In writing On the Origin of Species, Darwin had two principle goals: To show that species change over time (descent with modification) and that natural selection is the process producing the change. The fixity of species had long been under attack, and so Darwin’s first goal was not considered to be revolutionary. As the geologist Charles Lyell remarked, “transmutation (the older term for evolution) was hanging tense in the air”. But the second goal, evolution by natural selection, represented a fundamental shift in thinking. In the words of the evolutionary biologist Francisco J. Ayala of the University of California, Irvine, natural selection accounts for “design without a designer”. The genius of Charles Darwin was to turn the old argument from design upon its head. (Today the argument from design has reincarnated itself as Intelligent Design and is promoted by unenlightened religious fundamentalists.) The marvelously constructed and beautiful living forms that we see around us are not the miraculous arbitrary productions of a supernatural creator but instead have developed gradually over eons of time by means of a purposeless blind process of random genetic variation followed by differential reproductive success. Even humans, as Darwin well knew, are a product of natural selection and are one of millions of species with a common descent. As Daniel Dennett, philosopher at Tufts University said “Darwin taught us that a mindless process could produce a mind”. Just as Copernicus and Galileo removed the earth from the center of the universe, Charles Darwin removed man from the ego centric and vaunted pinnacle of creation. At the same time, he removed superstition from biology and turned it into a testable empirical science.
The style of argument used by Darwin in On the Origin of Species is unassailable. He used what is called consilience of induction, whereby multiple lines of evidence all converge upon a single common conclusion. These multiple lines of evidence were embryology, biogeography, vestigial (rudimentary) organs, comparative anatomy, domestication of plants and animals, and fossils. To this list we can now add molecular biology. Evolution by natural selection stands as the single greatest discovery in biology. The second greatest discovery occurred in 1953 when Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. This ushered in the second Darwinian revolution, which continues today at an ever accelerating pace. The only figure in On the Origin of Species is the “tree of life” sketched by Darwin himself. It is a graphic depiction of common origins and descent with modification. Today researchers are probing the deepest levels of life-- gene structure and regulation. Charles Darwin would be thrilled with their findings. The science of DNA has confirmed the “tree of life” and vindicated nearly everything said by the great man.
On the Origin of Species was a stunning achievement, especially in light of how little was known in Darwin’s day about the fossil record, the age of the earth, and inheritance. Darwin’s insight ranks among the greatest achievements of mankind, and evolution by natural selection is the most powerful idea in science today. Modern biology is inconceivable without Darwin, and this includes fields such as ecology, genetics, molecular biology, immunology, behavior, and medicine. Darwin’s ideas are having a profound impact upon the fields of psychology and sociology. Beginning in the 1940s, evolution by natural selection was accepted as fact by the scientific community. It is just a matter of time before it is accepted by virtually all Americans. After all, it took 300 years to complete the Copernican revolution, and it has only been 150 years since publication of On the Origin of Species.