Thursday, February 12, 2009

On the Origin of Species and Fools

Today is Charles Darwin's birthday. Happy 200th, Charles!

Here in Tennessee, Darwin is not well thought of by the FundXtians, nor by FundXtians anywhere else. Ask one about Darwin and you usually get an ignorant response. (Ignorance is a field of study in their universities, near as I can tell.) Typical is something like, "I don't believe in Evolution." To anyone with even a rudiment of knowledge, this would be kin to not believing in the orbit of Earth around the Sun.

 It is a common misperception that Darwin discovered Evolution but this is not true. What Darwin described was the mechanism that made Evolution happen. He figured out how species came to exist when previously, according to the geological record, they had not.

Well before Darwin's time, Evolution was fairly well accepted, due to the obvious record  in the geology. Looking at a vertical slice of our planet a long time ago, people could see the obvious. The deeper down you look, the simpler the organisms preserved in the fossils. Down deep were shellfish, corals, and little bug like things, but no turtles, alligators, pigs, or cows. Look closer to the surface and there were things that sort of resembles alligators, turtles, pigs and cows. Look very close to the surface and there they were...Turtles, Alligators, pigs and cows. This sequence is repeated all over the world where geological forces have cracked open the earth and shifted great vertical slices of the geological record up where we can see it in plain view. Things went from very simple to very complex. There was no denying it for a rational human being. 

So if there was a time very long ago, when none of the complex forms of life existed, including humans, but they existed today...How did this happen? Some folks claimed that a supreme being was making them,  fish, alligators, pigs, cows, and humans, when it was time for them to exist. Darwin thought that was a stretch and that some simple mechanism was probably at work. 

Young Charles had been educated to be a preacher, but his heart wasn't in it. Religious faith is a difficult concept to a rigorously logical mind, but Darwin held on to his beliefs until well after he formulated his theory on the Origin of Species. He was sent off on a ship, basically so the captain would have somebody literate to talk to at his evening meal. As the ship travelled along the southern coast of South America, young Charles saw an amazing diversity of species of life. He saw armadillos and monkeys. On the Chilean coast he saw a steep vertical slice of the Pacific shelf created by what would come to be known as Plate Techtonics, where great sections of a continent crack and shift up and down as the continents float about on the crust of the earth. Darwin of course had no knowledge of this but once again the vertical display of time and its effect on the complexity of life was displayed. Simple life forms at the bottom(long ago), more complex life forms at the top(more recent). Evolution was obvious. Darwin's question to himself was "Why?"

It was Charles Darwin's meticulous research, compilation of specimens and data, that was published as his book, "The Origin of Species" In it he described the mechanism of Evolution. His "theory" has withstood generations of evaluation by scientists and, though we have filled in many of the blanks and details, the theory is essentially accepted by every sane scientist and researcher on Earth. 

Darwin showed us how a species differentiates into other species over time and the challenges of staying alive and reproducing. His theory explains why we have new flu viruses every year, why bacteria get resistant to our medicines, and why there were a hundred different breeds of dogs in the Westminster Dog Show this week. It explains many things that some people are uncomfortable with facing, such as why human generations who historically lived in cold climates where the sun was weak tended to have light pigmentation to their skin, whereas people who lived where the sun is strong and ever present, tend to be dark. 

Darwin showed us the explanation for almost everything biological, even human behavior. He even gave us the explanation for why some humans refuse to accept facts that challenge their beliefs. This is more complicated than I will go unto here, but let's simply note that societies evolve, too, and that evolution may become de-evolution through the exact same mechanism. 

Thank you, Mr. Darwin, for that greatest of gifts. The gift of Understanding.



Other posts I have written on Darwin are Here and Here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I happened to catch the Nova special on Intelligent Design on Trial, the other night. It demonstrated the extent to which some on the right will go to challenge constitutional law regarding separation of church and state which protects everyone's right to their own religion. I too am driven by logic. But even if I were created by an intelligent designer, I think he would expect me (us) to use the brain we have to investigate and understand our world. I see presently no other logical explanation for our world and its creatures as it was and is today.