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

In praise of a beautiful theory

2009-02-12 07:59:10 GMT2009-02-12 15:59:10 (Beijing Time)  Forbes

Why evolution matters today more than ever.

In this year, 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of English naturalist Charles Darwin, let us ask why we should care about evolution, the idea he championed in his book On the Origin of Species, published 150 years ago, in 1859.

The obvious and true answer is that evolution--the descent of all organisms, living and dead and including us humans, by a long, slow, natural process, from just a few forms--is one of the most striking discoveries of all time.

We must see the world, the living world in particular, as something gradually unfurling, interconnected in so many ways. And we must also see that we humans are part and parcel of this story.

All organisms are special; think of the weird, duck-billed platypus. Humans are special in their own distinctive ways; for instance, our very large brains have given rise to language, to culture, to morality and much more. However, as for all organisms, we now consider our special features in the light of evolution.

This does not mean some things, and it does mean other things. Although evolution forces us to reject simplistic, literal readings of Genesis, nothing in its belief necessarily leads to the rejection of the essential truths of religion.

You can still believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. You can still believe that language is a gift from God. But more recently, like all features, language must also be seen as something that evolved, and, as a result, it is something that must be understood in Darwin's terms.

This brings us face to face with Darwin's second great contribution. He proposed a mechanism of change--that is, natural selection. More organisms are born than can survive and reproduce; this leads to a struggle for existence (and, more important, reproduction); and then there is a subsequent winnowing, with only the fitter succeeding.

True, this process leads to ongoing change, evolution, but it's change of a particular kind. The features that lead to success in the struggle--eyes and teeth and noses and penises and vaginas and bark and leaves and roots--come out as if designed for the purpose. Organisms are not just randomly thrown together; they have characteristics we call adaptive.

This deep insight--philosopher Daniel Dennett has called it the best idea ever--gives us an incredibly powerful tool for understanding our bodies and, further, our predilections. Sexual attraction, for instance, doesn't just occur. There are good reasons why adolescent schoolboys--I speak autobiographically--are obsessed with sex. Those would-be ancestors who had these obsessions survived and reproduced, and those who did not have them did neither.

Now don't panic and say that this is all nonsense--or, even worse, that it is not nonsense. That is, that the love of Romeo for Juliet counts for naught, that the deep passion so evident between our new president and his wife is somehow degraded, little more than a dance of the genes, as chosen and ordered by the unthinking forces of nature.

Think, rather, that we have complementary modes of understanding. And think also that the biological explanations can throw light on all sorts of full-blooded questions.

Why, for instance, do the Montagues and Capulets fight so fiercely? Why would they want so desperately for their own, prized, young members to wed within the clan? Why would young love nevertheless be so strong as to break down the barriers?

Evolutionary biology has solid explanations about in-group and out-group loyalty, about the ways in which the destinies of kin members serve the group and not just the individual, about why mating across barriers can rebound for individual fitness. It is not a question of Shakespeare versus Darwin, but of Shakespeare and Darwin working together for a fuller understanding.

So this year, reflect. What is it that makes us little lower than the angels? What is it for the Christian that makes us in the image of God?

For me, it is our ability to use our senses and our intelligence, ferreting out the wonderful mysteries of the universe, of which none stands higher than Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. His great supporter Thomas Henry Huxley said it is as noble to be modified monkeys as modified mud.


(Michael Ruse,

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