Happy 200th birthday Charles Darwin!
It is remarkable how a scientific epiphany and theory can change the world, change ordinary peoples lives – and still be so thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented to this day. We often talk of Darwin as the man who discovered evolution. Darwin did no such thing, evolution was an established scientific concept and problem well before he was born. What he did was to discover and present the main mechanisms that drive evolution, or changes in species: natural selection.
It was such a forehead-slapping simple insight that we might marvel at the fact that no one had really thought of it before. All living organisms create offspring, all offspring (the sexual ones at least) look a bit like the father and a bit like the mother. All organisms have different lifespans and manage to produce more or less offspring carrying those characteristics. If what nature equips you with in terms of health, behaviour, protection and coloring is helpful under the circumstances, chances are you get more offspring and more of the species will look like you. To natural selection he added sexual selection – the fact that some traits can actually be increadibly uncomfortable and even stupid, but they signal a healthy forceful individual which the babes dig – like big antlers, garish colours, annoying singing etc.
So far so good. Given enough time and enough external pressure (where many of the population perish and only those with certain traits survive), new species can and will arise. Darwin was nothing if not thorough. He spent enourmous amounts of time to collect examples and present his case. He wrote at length about orchids to discuss the overwhelming abundance of species, and how evolution was proven by the existence not of the perfectly adapted species, that might as well have been made by a Creator, but by the dozens of less than perfect adaptations that thrived just the same. His point was, it doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to work! And even more importantly – what works today may be just the thing that will kill you tomorrow… There can never be a perfect adaption, because we do not live in a fixed unchanging world.
Unfortunately, Darwin had no idea how exactly the changes were transmited from one individual to the next. There would be another 100 years after the Origin of the Species before humanity looked upon a correct model of the DNA and started to understand genetics. The fantastic thing about science is that we do not need to have all the pieces of the puzzle immediately, we can start placing the pieces before we even know what the picture should be. Unfortunately, partly because of the lack of understanding of genetics, partly because people found it easier to understand and accept the notion of evolution than the notion of natural selection, evolutionary models were quickly applied to anything from societies to gender relations. Darwin himself had mostly stayed away from discussing human culture and society in those terms – notably so.
The idea of evolution as progressive development, and survival meaning objectively better quality, fitted too well into the established cultural notions of the Western world. Darwin’s elegant and brilliant theories were subjected to a very selective process in itself – parts were seized upon and others were ignored. An evolutionary paradigm appeared in all parts of society and academia: economy, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, etc. If it worked in one area of research, the reasoning seemed to suggest, it must work in all. And even in biology the deeply culturally rooted ideology of ranking and interpreting reproductives success in one generation as qualitatively better all together held sway – creating some absolutely disastrous results. You can lead the horse to water, but you cannot force him to drink.
Stephen J Gould has discussed many aspects of Darwin, and use and abuse of Darwin’s ideas, but one of the best is the book Full House. In it he shreds to pieces our blind belief in our own position at the top of an evolutionary ladder. We are but the tip of the tail of the dog, he states, and it is definitely the dog doing the wagging of the tail and not the other way around. Our existence, the existence of the majority of all larger animals and plants, is keeping one step ahead of the single cell organisms, the bacteria and viruses, and the small parasites, that constantly try to feed upon us. By chance and happenstance a small, small portion of the animal kingdom, after several hundred million years of existence, led to the development of bipedal, fairly large brained primates – most of which have since become extinct and have certainly never been that succesful up until now. The very thing that helped us succeed and procreate, our brain, might also be the very thing that will bring about our doom.
Natural selection – it doesn’t care if you’re perfect, it doesn’t even care if you are all that succesful, as long as you manage to hold on long enough to reproduce. It just is – until the last living organism dies in a (hopefully) far distant future.
The rest is up to us.
This blog post is part of the Blog For Darwin initiative that lists lots and lots of blogs that write about Darwin this week.