Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London and writes an entertaining and informative online column called "The Wild Side" in the New York Times. Being a fan of all things Darwin I particularly enjoyed her column today titled "Darwinmania" that kicks off a 18 month celebration of Darwin and his ideas on July 1st, 2008 (150th anniversary of the announcement of his discovery of natural selection) leading into February 2009 (200th anniversary of Darwin's birth) and culminating in November 2009 (150th anniversary of the publication of the "Origin of Species").

Today's column also summarizes some of the well known history of the "origins" of explaining evolution and natural selection, arguably the most revolutionary scientific idea in human history. No matter how many times one reads the fascinating story of Wallace and Darwin competing to be "first to market" with this groundbreaking discovery, one can't help but reflect on the true nature of most scientific thought as a systematic and painstaking effort built on accumulated knowledge rather than "eureka" moments of isolated genius.

Some excerpts from Judson's column:
And the “Origin” changed everything. Before the “Origin,” the diversity of life could only be catalogued and described; afterwards, it could be explained and understood. Before the “Origin,” species were generally seen as fixed entities, the special creations of a deity; afterwards, they became connected together on a great family tree that stretches back, across billions of years, to the dawn of life. Perhaps most importantly, the “Origin” changed our view of ourselves. It made us as much a part of nature as hummingbirds and bumblebees (or humble-bees, as Darwin called them); we, too, acquired a family tree with a host of remarkable and distinguished ancestors.

The reason the “Origin” was so powerful, compelling and persuasive, the reason Darwin succeeded while his predecessors failed, is that in it he does not just describe how evolution by natural selection works. He presents an enormous body of evidence culled from every field of biology then known. He discusses subjects as diverse as pigeon breeding in Ancient Egypt, the rudimentary eyes of cave fish, the nest-building instincts of honeybees, the evolving size of gooseberries (they’ve been getting bigger), wingless beetles on the island of Madeira and algae in New Zealand. One moment, he’s considering fossil animals like brachiopods (which had hinged shells like clams, but with a different axis of symmetry); the next, he’s discussing the accessibility of nectar in clover flowers to different species of bee.
Update: Today (July 9th, 2008) Judson has Part II of the series celebrating Charles Darwin. An excerpt:

So, the difficulties notwithstanding, there are many reasons to tackle the “Origin.” Reasons above and beyond the fact that it is one of the most important books ever written, and central to our culture. But to me, perhaps the most important is that reading the “Origin” is a window into a mind. A rich and fertile mind, with a holistic view of nature. One that sees the interconnectedness of living beings — that cats can alter the number of flowers — long before ecology existed as a formal subject. A mind that sees the brutality of the natural world — the wasps that lay their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars (the caterpillars are then eaten alive by the growing larvae), the stupendous death rates of most creatures — and sees that from the terrible slaughter, great beauty can arise:

"Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

1 comment:

Zakintosh said...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

Overheard after an Evolution Lecture at T2F: "Dr Saad said Darwin was a religious man. I always thought he was a Christian."

Thanks for a wonderful post.