Thursday, September 10, 2009

Still Creating Controversy

Last night I went to another of The Bookworm's talks, this time on Charles Darwin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.
David Quammen is a science journalist who has written a few books on Darwin, including The Reluctant Mr Darwin and The Song of the Dodo.
He says that some people take Darwin for granted, loosely using terms like "Darwinism" and use it in all kinds of context without really understanding evolutionary theory.
However, we have no excuse not to learn it because The Origin of Species is written in plain English, not like many famous scientists like Newton or Copernicus or Einstein where you have to know science or math to be able to understand their concepts. So we can directly understand what Darwin was trying to say without needing a science expert to "translate" it and explain what it means.
Quammen is most interested in Darwin the man and why it took him 21 years to publish The Origin of Species.
Darwin's father was a physician and so was his older brother, and it was expected that Charles would do the same. He studied medicine in Edinburgh, performing autopsies, surgeries without anesthetic and he hated it.
Then he went to Cambridge and studied the classics. It was generally understood that if you studied at Cambridge, you would become an Anglican parson. While Darwin wasn't particularly religious, he was looking forward to a life of preaching to his parish on Sundays and watching birds the rest of the week, as Quammen told us.
However, Darwin ended up going on the HMS Beagle in his early 20s which changed the course of his career. For four years, nine months and five days, he collected marine life from a net that trailed behind the ship, and on land he collected lots of fossils and live specimens.
When Darwin spent three weeks in the Galapagos Islands, he discovered brown birds with funny beaks, as Quammen tells the story. While he had knowledge in nature, biology and geology, Darwin was no expert and collected lots of specimens for other experts to examine. It turns out the birds were finches, but each were different species. It was then that Darwin realized he should have labeled which birds came from which islands as their environment may have determined the shape of their beaks.
Quammen also said Darwin was a great observer. He discovered fossils of giant armadillos and sloths, and at the same time saw living sloths and armadillos in the same area and wondered how that could be. The idea of extinction was not known at the time, as it was believed that God created living creatures for particular reasons and they would never be extinct.
After Darwin came back from his long voyage, he never left England again. This explains the some 16,000 pieces of correspondence he sent or received, asking many people going on expeditions to send him observations of things that they saw to help him develop his theory.
At the time Darwin believed some kind of "transmutation" was happening, but he realized this theory of evolution, determined by variation, selection and heredity would be explosive. Quammen says the scientist was a "fundamentally cautious man burdened by a radical idea". He was honest and could not compromise, which may explain why it took him 21 years to publish The Origin of Species.
When it was finally released in November 1859, all 1,250 copies were sold wholesale, which at that time was unprecedented.
The reaction was as expected -- people either violently disagreed with Darwin, and they were not only from the church, but even fellow scientists as well, including some of Darwin's teachers.
However, there was also excitement, like Thomas Huxley who said, "How stupid one could not have thought of it", meaning it all made sense, so why didn't someone think of it earlier.
There were six editions of The Origin of Species published during Darwin's lifetime, but Quammen says the later ones were watered down, and thus suggests people read the first edition to get the radical idea that he was presenting the first time to the world.
It wasn't until 60 years after Darwin died was he more widely accepted. The work of Gregor Mendel, the scientist who studied genetics through pea plants was rediscovered in the 1930s and people began to realize Mendel's work complemented Darwin's. The 1940s started the New Synthesis movement, or Neo-Darwinism.
Nevertheless, despite all the scientific proof we have today about species, including humans have evolved, many people today still don't believe in the theory of evolution.
The Gallup organization has done numerous telephone polls over the years and consistently in the United States, 44-47 percent believe God created man in his present form. Only between 9 and 14 percent believe man developed but God had no part in the process. The rest believe that man developed, with God's guidance.
During Darwin's lifetime, people wanted to believe there was a mysticism with regards to creation. However, why is there still a large number that still believe in creationism today?
This is probably why Darwin still holds a fascination for people, but still polarizes groups who insist on clinging to what the Bible literally says.
One wonders if he knew he would still be a controversial figure, 200 years later... 


ChopSuey said...

I loved this post and especially some of the details around Darwin's potential career path...

gung said...

see the movie 'creation' shown at the tiff [toronto international film festival] for further insight into this perpetual argument between believers and non-believers.