Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day

Charles Darwin at age 51, soon after the publication of The Origin Of Species. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin, the 19th Century naturalist who first worked out the principles of evolution. Thanks to his studies and his discovery of species in the Galapagos Islands that were similar to species on the South American coast, Darwin worked out that many forms of life, by reproducing imperfect copies of themselves, can evolve new species over sufficient numbers of generations. Much as it is today, this concept was deeply offensive to the religions of his time. They assumed, as had William Paley, an early influence on Darwin, that all forms of life were the result of design by a deity.

Darwin's concept of evolution, confirmed independently by Welsh naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, transformed his science almost overnight. I think it's fair to say that it was the start of the modern science of biology. It's certainly fair to say that evolution is one of the fundamental assumptions of all forms of biology. It's influence is felt even in the study of biochemistry, the study chemicals that support life, as well as molecular biology, the study of DNA and other genetic materials. Neither of those sciences existed in Darwin's day.

Since I'm not a biologist, I'm not going to be able to write much more about Darwin. I'll just recommend some reading on the subject. Dana Hunter has an interesting collection of quotes and facts over at En Tequila Es Verdad. The science blog Seed has an index of articles celebrating Darwin. It includes "Darwin Slept Here", an essay with photographs on Darwin's voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, which took him to the Galapagos, and around the world. It shows some of the places in South America where Darwin must have stayed, based on his autobiography.

Micheal Shermer has written an article on the relationship between Darwin and Wallace, showing that the two developed their ideas on evolution independently, yet both were eager to share credit with each other for the result. Shermer has written at length on Darwin and Wallace in the past, particularly in his book The Borderlands Of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. In that book, Shermer uses Darwin and Wallace as excellent examples of scientific thinking and unscientific thinking. Wallace, in contrast to Darwin, was prone to belief in supernatural phenomena, and much of his later life was spent doing things that today would perhaps best be described as a bad idea for a cable TV show. Shermer has also written Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. I haven't read that book, but based on his past work, I suspect it's a good one.

UPDATE: Turns out that the study of DNA and other molecules that influence genetics is considered a separate science. I've rewritten the second paragraph to reflect this. Did I mention that I'm not a biologist? ;)

1 comment:

Dana Hunter said...

Grate. More books to add to the already-enormous list... does anyone have a pic of an LOL cat getting hit by a tremendous stack of tomes? ;-)

Nicely done!