There's also no debate about Darwin's contribution to promoting the evidence of evolution and descent with modification. He made a brilliant case for evolution in his books. Subsequent discoveries have demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that modern life is the product of billions of years of evolution. Descent with modification is a scientific fact. The fact that evolution has occurred is not a theory. It is not a "theory" that humans and the other apes have descended form a common ancestor ... it is a fact [Evolution Is a Fact and a Theory].
We perpetuate confusion in the minds of the general public if we don't make it abundantly clear that modern evolution theory is not about whether evolution occurred and it's not just about natural selection.
I was prompted to write this blog post by a recent article in New Scientist: Darwin’s discovery: The remarkable history of evolution.1 The author is John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore. He is a historian of science with a special interest in Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The article contains a box that says ...
Evolution in a nutshellThis is misleading in two ways. First, it states that common descent is part of the the theory of evolution. Second, it only talks about natural selection as a mechanism of evolution.
Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution maintains that new species are descended from earlier ones. This long-term process happens because all organisms vary. The tiny variations are naturally “selected” by virtue of whether or not they help an organism to survive the brutal struggle for existence in nature. Many are born, but few survive; fortuitous variations are preferentially passed on. This process of endless filtering works to adapt organisms to their environment.
We wish to question a deeply engrained habit of thinking among students of evolution. We call it the adaptationist programme, or the Panglossian paradigm.
S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin (1979) p. 584Fortunately, the main body of the article is quite a bit better. Here's what John van Wyhe actually says about evolution.
Despite its baptism of fire, On the Origin of Species almost single-handedly convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact. In his 1889 book Darwinism, Wallace wrote of the revolution Darwin effected: "this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!"Darwin showed that evolution is a fact and it's good that van Wyhe made this point in a article aimed at the general public. It's not good when he says "the core of the modern theory remains Darwin’s idea of descent with modification."
The theory of evolution has come a long way since. Today we think of it in terms of genes and DNA, but Darwin and Wallace had no idea of their existence. It was only in the 1930s and 1940s that genetics was incorporated into evolutionary theory. Even now, new discoveries are shaking up our understanding, but at the core of the modern theory remains Darwin’s idea of descent with modification.
Today evolution has many critics outside the scientific community, especially in the US, where a significant percentage of the population are creationists. What is forgotten is that the scientific debate over evolution was over by the 1870s and has never again been a matter of serious dispute.
It's not good that he still refers to "THE" theory of evolution instead of "evolutionary theory," which encompasses all kinds of things other than natural selection.
1. The title in the print edition is: "The Evolution Revolution."