Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Everyone Should Learn the Theory of Evolution

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.

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.
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.

If the editors of Scientific American don't understand the difference then our society is in a lot worse trouble than I imagined.


  1. While I do recommend that people actually do read The Origin of Species, I agree with your points. It's actually rather strange because I'm reading a book book that argues that Darwin was completely incorrect in his theory of sexual selection. It's rather aggravating that the author of said book frequently refers to the writings of Darwin himself, often ignoring the ~140 years of fruitful work that has expanded on his ideas.

  2. I think the greatest scientist who ever lived was the one who devised modern city sanitation.
    Seriously though, I think Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton will have a good fight over who was the greatest.

  3. I think Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton will have a good fight over who was the greatest.

    But wasn't Darwin a one trick pony in comparison to Newton and Einstein?

  4. But wasn't Darwin a one trick pony in comparison to Newton and Einstein?

    Umm . . .

    - The first explanation for the patterns of coral reef development.

    - The theory of evolution.

    - The definitive work on barnacles.

    - The effect of earthworms on soil formation.

    So that'd be a no then.

  5. Darwin did not proffer an inheritance of acquired characters theory of inheritance. This is one of those canards that is due to a careless reading of his words. What he said (and not in the Origin) was that used traits were more strongly inherited and disused traits were less strongly inherited (remember, he held effectively an analogue view of heredity). But traits acquired during the lifetime of the parent were not under his view passed on to progeny.

  6. Just curious...why should anyone beleive in any form of darwinism? There are no mutations that add new bodily structures, or even new parts to existing structures. Please debate me here if you disagree:

  7. "Anonymous" is a famous troll called Supersport/Guzman. Ignore him: he's ineducable.

    Go away, sporty.

  8. Plus, Darwin was also an accomplished geologist. You could say that he was to Charles Lyell as Arthur Eddington was to Albert Einstein.

  9. Oh, I'm just a harmless YEC fuzzball....charming, even. I'm just desperate to debate any person who thinks genomes (and bodies) got built up via mutation/selection. Larry, I would love for you to come visit Carm for a while. Maybe you could just describe what "evolution" actually is nowdays....I'd love hear that story.

  10. supersport (anonymous/Guzman)says.

    Larry, I would love for you to come visit Carm for a while. Maybe you could just describe what "evolution" actually is nowdays....I'd love hear that story.

    I took a look at the thread you linked to. There are two or three amateur evolutionists doing an excellent job of demonstrating your ignorance. They don't need any help.

    I'm impressed (not favorably) by the force of your logic. A few minutes ago someone explained why your questions are idiotic.

    No, they are idiotic. They are idiotic because:
    1. they or questions like them been answered many times over the years - you just are too pig ignorant ot understand them or you never read them in the first place
    2. they indicate a naivete not seen in even fresh high school graduates

    You posted the following "witty" response proving that "high school graduate" is an exaggeration.

    so my question is idiotic because they've been answered many times over the years and because they indicate that I'm naive -- yet you refuse to answer. Is that about right? you're a typical evolutionist.

  11. Re: the resident troll's "There are no mutations that add new bodily structures, or even new parts to existing structures."

    Yes, there are. Plenty. And no, I couldn't be bothered to list them - that's what PubMed is for - nor could I be arsed to nit-pick about EXACTLY what you mean by "mutation" or "bodily" or "structures" or "new" or "the".

    Res. troll also reminds me of another reason why Darwin's so great - Darwin's work has removed more of religion's foundations than most science and, by extension, has strengthened science as a way of looking at the World.

    I realize that Newton and Einstein's ideas aren't exactly God-friendly, but they're usually thought of as dealing with non-human scales (astronomical, atomic), so humans can weasel out of the implications fairly easily. But Darwin explicitly stated that humans are nothing special (*), which removes a lot of the purpose of religion.

    So hurray for Charles and boo for kneeling down in front of statues...

    * "Light will be thrown on the origin of Man and his history" etc. etc.

  12. Larry, are you going to answer the challenge in my OP or not? The post(s) you are referring to have nothing to do with the OP; I need to know why I should believe in any form of darwinism if mutations don't build bodies. You read the post, now I would like to discuss it with you.

  13. Just so everyone is aware of the high level of debate that supersport/guzman brings to the table, I hereby bring you:

    Wrong....look at the butterfly/tadpole example...those small offspring of the mother butterfly "evolved" in the womb according to their external environment. This is NOT larmarckism

  14. yea, finches do "evolve" in the womb. of course "evolve" is in quotes because I'm using at as 'change' -- there is no such thing as evolution. But just as mother finches alter their offspring's birth order and accelerate development with hormones, so do they alter their offspring's beak size/shape with hormones.

  15. DK: no. Read The Voyage of the Beagle.

  16. Nope.

    But you don't need me anyway, just go to NCBI, here, highlight "PubMed" in the search box on the left and have a look for yourself.

    I'd start with something like "mutation development", but that gives around 75,000 hits, which you'll need to narrow down a little.

    I'll leave you to it...

  17. nonsense. John, if you had just an ounce of scientific integrity in your body you would back it up with a link, the observed mutation, and the bodily structure it added. I'm not wading through countless pages of nonsense searching for evidence that's not there.

    And this is why I asked to speak to Larry...I dont care to talk to these rank amateurs, as rank amateurs are all talk and no action, like John and Steve. But evidently Larry isn't interested in sticking up for Darwinism. Heck I'm just a dumb YEC from Texas who has had no formal scientific training or schooling -- surely, Larry, you can take just a little time out of your busy day to teach me a thing or two about the theory that you believe in???? Please? I need to know how you believe bodies get (got) built up. Does RMNS do it or not? Or, is the process of adaptation internalized in each individual via self-organizational/epigenetic/HGT/plasticity/recombination and/or other mechanisms?

  18. Darwin is the first scientist since the philosophers of the Samkhya tradition - usually ascribed to Kapila but really we don't know - to despecialise human beings. Kapila of course is the first thinker ever to rule out all forms of evidence except perception and all conclusions except inference. v. radical considering that happened >5000 years ago.