Darwin at 200
Darwin Day, 2008: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, founder of evolutionary biology.
Darwin wasn’t alone in his discovery of the process of biological evolution; Alfred Russell Wallace almost beat him to fame’s finish line. But Darwin made the key logical connections first, and for mostly the same reasons Wallace did: species around the world didn’t appear to all come from the same Monster Manual, they varied tremendously from place to place, and they seemed weirdly adapted to exactly the conditions in which they lived. By itself that wouldn’t have been much of a discovery, and surely many others of Darwin’s day would have noted the same curious facts in their world travels. What set Darwin apart was his willingness to think about what he saw. Starting from a position of religious indoctrination, Darwin managed to shrug off that dead weight and view the world as it was instead of how he was told it was.
In retrospect it’s amazing no one thought of evolution by natural selection before Darwin. For all we know some might have, but they never wrote down their thoughts on the matter, or never had the chance to publish before being drawn and quartered for heresy, and so their realizations are lost to time. Luckily for us Darwin came along during a time of iconoclasty and exploration in bustling Victorian England, which gave him a chance to publicly discuss his thoughts without being summarily burned at the stake.
The reason I say it’s amazing evolution wasn’t discovered earlier stems from how simple the concept really is. The whole of the concept can be boiled down to three basic observations about life:
1. There are more creatures born into the world than can possibly survive to reproduce.
Even hardcore creationists would have to stipulate that one. Or maybe not… they are quite stupid. Anyway, observation one is pretty obvious: every cockroach lays thousands of eggs, but only a handful survive to grow up and lay eggs of their own. Most acorns never become oaks. This is a fact of life so basic we take it for granted.
2. Individuals differ.
Again, pretty straightforward stuff. Humans are not clones, neither are pikas, or box jellies, or tapeworms. Bacterial strains are clonal, but they mutate all the time… we don’t have a world engermed by one single ubiquitous microbe. Some people have disease immunities that others lack. We vary in height, weight, athletic prowess, eye color, hair manageability, lactose intolerance… the list goes on. So far, so obvious.
3. Offspring resemble their parents.
Among sexually-reproducing species this is taken as a given, and forms the basis of selective breeding as practiced by our ancestors for the last few thousand years. Short, swarthy, dark-haired parents rarely give birth to Nordic ubermenschen, and vice-versa. Inheritance was taken for granted in Darwin’s day, even though no one had a clue how it worked.
Darwin’s accomplishment began when he put together 1, 2 and 3. If most offspring die, and siblings vary, and parents’ traits determine their kids’ traits…well, the handwriting is on the wall, isn’t it? Individuals with traits that help them survive will tend to be among those lucky few who live long enough to reproduce, and their offspring will tend to carry whatever traits helped their parents win the survival lottery. Maroon a shipful of lactose-intolerant people on the Island of Milk and Cheese, and within a few generations you’ll probably find very few lactose-intolerant people living there. They would have died, and only those whose enzymatic constitutions could generate lactase would have had a chance at life.
Easy enough, so far. But that much is just filtering… what about new traits? Darwin’s contribution here was to notice, in addition to the above, that sometimes freaks are born. Sometimes a child is born an albino, or calves appear with extra limbs, or kittens are born hairless, or millionaire dilettantes are born with wings… oh wait, that last one was from Marvel Comics. Well, you get the idea. Mutants happen, for reasons Darwin hadn’t a clue about. Freaks are sometimes born with abnormalities so hideous that death is immediate, which only means that freakishness can come in large doses… but Darwin realized that freakishness can also come in small doses, and sometimes those doses are medicinal. Sometimes mutations work to advantage an individual who achieved her advantage by chance but whose surivival in possession of said advantage is anything but random. The ability to eat cheese among cheese-makers doesn’t have a random effect, it has a very definite effect of allowing you to survive by eating cheese. Creationists always get this part wrong; they’re either too stupid to understand or too unwilling, but either way selection is not about randomness… the only lottery involved is the source of variations, not their effects.
Darwin realized that in a world of desperate struggles to survive, there will be winners and losers. The winners have the babies, and if those winners win because a cosmic ray gave their genes a new way to handle cheese, or malaria, or oxygen, those are just the breaks. Darwin realized that species will constantly change to adapt within their surroundings… and over the immensity of geologic time those changes would create whole new forms of life. Darwin realized that fossils were relics of other lifeforms who lived long ago, and we are their descendants.
I described all of the above without a single equation. Neither did Darwin use equations, because the modern science of genetics didn’t exist yet. Mendel had made his pea-plant genetics discoveries while Darwin was alive, but Darwin didn’t know about that work when he wrote Origin of Species. Darwin was the first to stumble onto a new field of research, opening the door to others who would far surpass his rudimentary findings, building on his work… but Darwin was the first.
Today creationists use Darwin as a weapon. They claim scientists worship him as a god, and that atheists base their delusion-free thinking on him. Neither is true, but creationists aren’t interested in what is true. If they were, they’d get out of their armchairs and try figuring things out for themselves, instead of just repeating the pathetic lies of sore losers. Creationists fail so utterly not just because they’re wrong. Anyone can be wrong. They’re pitiful because they build their worlds around arguments from authority and around blind trust in unquestionable dogma, and they think everyone else does, too.
Darwin Day exists because people respect the accomplishments of a hard-working man who punched through the screen of lies and ignorance to suggest a better explanation for how life works. No one, today or then, takes Origin of Species as inerrant or treats its author as a deity. Evolutionary science isn’t about Darwin, any more than nuclear chemistry is about Fermi. It’s never about the person… it’s about the discovery. That’s the point. That’s how science works. Darwin said, “hey, look over here”, and we did, and we’re a lot better off as a result.