Darwin at 200: World Salutes Founder of Evolutionary Theory
Two hundred years ago, in a wealthy household in rural England, a child was born who, in a quiet, dogged and utterly peaceful way, was destined to become one of the greatest revolutionaries who lived.
Armed just with a pen, Charles Darwin reforged our concept of Nature and humanity’s place in it, ignited a social debate that blazes to this day and shook the foundations of religions.
He bequeathed a theoretical legacy – the principle of evolution by natural selection and the origins of Man – that has not only survived assault by Creationists and other critics but also remains a pillar of modern science.
The February 12 bicentenary has been elevated into a global celebration, placing Darwin among Newton, Einstein, Galileo and other greats who not only broke new ground in science but also reshaped our mental landscape.
“For my money, the most important thinker the human species has ever produced is Charles Darwin,” says evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and other works.
Darwin’s blockbusters were two books, On the Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary of publication falls on November 24, and The Descent of Man, published in 1871.
In the first, Darwin expounded his idea of evolution by natural selection.
Species’ mutation is led by individuals whose inherited characteristics enable them to dominate their habitat.
“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment,” he wrote.
Some scientists of the time described Darwin’s words as a stabbing ray of light, a simple but brilliant illumination.
It explained how some species survived and others were wiped out, and how environmental pressures sculpted shape and behavior across the natural world. It took nearly a century of further work, with the discovery of DNA, to pinpoint the genetic mechanism of change.
In the second, Darwin applied evolutionary theory to humans, emerging with the then mind-blowing contention that Homo sapiens and apes descended from a common ancestor.
“Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin,” Darwin said bluntly.
At a stroke, Darwin established humans as just a species of animal, rather than a lordly creature created in God’s own image that most people at the time believed.
It was a shift in self-perception that was as humbling as it was, for many, troubling. Evangelical Christians and other religious groups which take a literal view of scriptures contest it even today.
“Just as Copernicus cast the Earth out from the centre of the universe, the Darwinian universe displaced humans as the epicenter of the natural world,” says the journal Scientific American.
With characteristic modesty, Darwin acknowledged he was not the first to propose evolutionary change.
In the late 1700s, French naturalist Georges Cuvier showed that some organisms got wiped out by environmental change. Later, zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that some organisms adapted in response to their environments.
But they saw evolution as a linear one, in which simple organisms became more complex, and humans were at the pinnacle, the peak of perfection.
Darwin, though, rejected this in favor of branching evolution, a “tree of life” in which species diverge from a common ancestor.
It remains the conceptual backbone of biology today and is the inspiration for a whole range of newer sciences, from genomics and evolutionary psychology to self-teaching robots.
The tragic downside to Darwin’s legacy is that “survival of the fittest” was also misinterpreted or evilly twisted, used by eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century as an argument to eradicate a social or ethnic underclass.
Such acts would have been monstrous to Darwin, a deeply civilized man who reviled slavery and was unfailingly generous to the poor and needy.
“I would easily count him among the five greatest thinkers in human history,” said German historian Wilfried Rogasch.
“There are lots of people who are trying desperately to find bits and pieces where his theory was wrong, but they haven’t succeeded. It seems to be not a theory but a fundamental law of nature.”Filed under: Headlines