Thu, February 12, 2009
Sci-Tech > Science > Happy Birthday Charles Darwin

The evolution of evolution

2009-02-12 07:53:49 GMT2009-02-12 15:53:49 (Beijing Time)  Forbes

Surveying a landscape of cognition--and controversy.

Evolution is change over time.

This characterization can, of course, refer to the way species morph during their histories--minor adjustments in the curve of a beak, the span of a flipper, the size of a brain. At its most basic level, this kind of development attempts to explain how and why organisms' physical or mental attributes equip them to best survive in diverse, often harsh, environments.

But especially this year--as the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th of his publication of On the Origin of Species excites widespread reflection and analysis among biophiles worldwide--that pithy definition is particularly apt.

Science at its core is not static; in fact, it's almost the opposite. Just as species change over time, so does science. It changes not only with respect to its tenets and research tools, but also the way its propositions are received, criticized, regulated and debated by an audience far outside the community of those who practice it.

The evolution of evolutionary theory is no exception. Heated arguments between its advocates and those who believe in creationism or intelligent design are but blips in a massive, craggy landscape of controversy that has accumulated over two centuries.

More questions than we'd like were raised long ago, and remain unanswered. Two of the biggest: If humans are no different than animals, what is the status of free will, of morality borne from the brain, not the body? Can and should we apply ideas about the "survival of the fittest" to economics, to population control, to law, to love?

These gripping uncertainties spring from our common desire to eliminate uncertainty, or the unknowns of the surrounding universe, by subjecting them to knowledge, scrutiny and documentation. And as a result, we gamely hope that we'll stumble into some unequivocal truths about our place in the world, and why we are where we are.

At this task, Darwin was king. His many diaries--some of the best reading around--are filled with vignettes parsing everyday occurrences. He thoughtfully recorded the patterns of his pets, children and neighbors; case studies his father, a doctor, recounted to him, along with stories of his own mind, body and travels. Within a few scribbled notebook entries, he refers to a dog closing a door, an orangutan pursing its lips with contempt and an older woman losing her memory. From these empirical scraps, he crafted a lofty hypothesis.

This idea of continuity between self and other, animal and human, past and present, is what gave Darwinian thinking its potency. Darwin practiced science in such a way that he tried to find reasons for both human exceptionalism and our commonalities with other living things. After all, what living thing on earth doesn't also nourish itself, reproduce and try its darndest to survive and succeed in an environment that changes faster than we possibly can?

Despite all this, these valiant attempts to explain our nature and how we fit into some larger narrative--what some call biological determinism--or any hint that biology is destiny--continue to spark wild controversy. Just look at the outcry stirred up when former Harvard President Larry Summers said that different degrees of "intrinsic aptitude" in math and science might be one reason there aren't as many female math and science professors in academia's upper echelons.

One hundred and fifty years later, biology's messy yet inextricable relationship with society isn't any more stable; the arguments are just couched in 21st-century vocabulary and duked out in the blogosphere rather than the front parlor.

Today, Darwinism is pervasive, its allusions gracing album titles, T-shirts, videogames and popular parlance. New terminology is often a translucent facade for age-old musings. For example, based on new data from the human genome project, or research on donor-conceived children like myself, just how much does biological knowledge equate to self-knowledge?

It's unsatisfying, certainly, but the answer is an amalgam of the following responses: A bit. A lot. Somewhat. We don't know. We're not sure. More than anything, we disagree. The only certainty is that, while the core principles of Darwinian theory have endured the trials of their first 150 years, the continuing evolution of its interpretation and application--when it comes to our ancestral origins and our future survival alike--promises to be anything but clear-cut.

(Hana R. Alberts,

Add Your Comments:

Your Name:
Your Country:
(English Only)
Please read our Terms of Service. Messages that harass, abuse or threaten others; have obscene or otherwise objectionable content; have spam, commercial or advertising content or links may be removed.