Why Everyone Should Learn the Theory of Evolution is the title of an editorial on the Scientific American website.
The editors begin by pointing out that Charles Darwin was a genius who deserves every bit as much recognition as Albert Einstein. I agree 100%. In my opinion Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived and it's about time we started to recognize his genius.
The rest of the editorial isn't as good. It's clear that the editors have a myopic view of evolution. They seem to think that the sort of evolution everyone should learn can be found in The Origin of Species.
But Darwin is so much more than just a quaint, Victorian historical figure whose bust in the pantheon deserves a place among those of other scientific greats. Theory needs to explain past, present and future—and Darwin’s does all three in a form that requires no simplifying translation. His theory is readily accessible to any literate person who allots a pleasurable interlude for On the Origin of Species, its prose sometimes bordering on the poetic: “... from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”Now, you can learn a lot about evolution from reading Darwin's 1859 book. You can learn, for example, about natural selection and you can also learn about the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
You won't learn anything about genetics or biochemistry or developmental biology or bacteria or genomes or whether birds are related to dinosaurs.
The editors link to another article published in this month's Scientific American: The Evolution of Evolution. The article by Gary Stix attempts to explain Darwin's Living Legacy--Evolutionary Theory 150 Years Later. It doesn't do a very good job but at least it raises some interesting questions.
The concept of evolution as a form of branching descent from a common ancestor achieved a relatively rapid acceptance, but accommodation for natural selection came much more slowly, even within the scientific community. The hesitation was understandable. In his work, Darwin had not described a mechanism for inheritance, attributing it to minuscule, hypothetical “gemmules” that ejected from each tissue and traveled to the sex organs, where copies were made and passed to subsequent generations. It took until the decades of the 1930s and 1940s for natural selection to gain broad acceptance.We know the answers to some of these questions. The modern version of evolution is the one that everyone should learn—not the 150-year-old version that Darwin wrote about.
It was then that the modern synthesis emerged as an expansive framework that reconciled Darwin’s natural selection with the genetics pioneered by Gregor Mendel. In 1959, the centennial of the publication of Origin of Species, the place of natural selection seemed assured.
But in the ensuing years, the scope of evolutionary biology has had to broaden still further to consider such questions as whether the pace of evolution proceeds in fits and starts—a paroxysm of change followed by long periods of stasis. Do random mutations frequently get passed on or disappear without enhancing or diminishing fitness, a process called genetic drift? Is every biological trait an evolutionary adaptation, or are some characteristics just a random by-product of a physical characteristic that provides a survival advantage?
The field has also had to take another look at the notion that altruistic traits could be explained by natural selection taking place across whole groups. And as far as the origin of species, what role does genetic drift play? Moreover, does the fact that single-celled organisms often trade whole sets of genes with one another undermine the very concept of species, defined as the inability of groups of organisms to reproduce with one another? The continued intensity of these debates represents a measure of the vigor of evolutionary biology—as well as a testament to Darwin’s living legacy.
If the editors of Scientific American don't understand the difference then our society is in a lot worse trouble than I imagined.