July 17, 2008 | 11:04 pm
Posted by Brad A. Greenberg
Olivia Judson, who has been celebrating 150 years of “On the Origins of Species,” voiced her complaints yesterday with—would you believe it?—all the attention Darwin’s been given. It’s not that his fingerprint on history wasn’t massive; it’s just that she feels credit needs to be given where credit is due. I really should let her explain:
Darwin did more in one lifetime than most of us could hope to accomplish in two. But his giantism has had an odd and problematic consequence. It’s a tendency for everyone to refer back to him. “Why Darwin was wrong about X”; “Was Darwin wrong about Y?”; “What Darwin didn’t know about Z” — these are common headlines in newspapers and magazines, in both the biological and the general literature. Then there are the words: Darwinism (sometimes used with the prefix “neo”), Darwinist (ditto), Darwinian.
Why is this a problem? Because it’s all grossly misleading. It suggests that Darwin was the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of evolutionary biology, and that the subject hasn’t changed much in the 149 years since the publication of the “Origin.”
He wasn’t, and it has. Although several of his ideas — natural and sexual selection among them — remain cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, the field as a whole has been transformed. If we were to go back in a time machine and fetch him to the present day, he’d find much of evolutionary biology unintelligible — at least until he’d had time to study genetics, statistics and computer science.
What would he make of it all?
I think his reaction would be a mix of satisfaction and astonishment. Satisfaction: that natural selection has turned out to be such a powerful idea, explaining such a wide range of phenomena. Astonishment: for the same reason. He would, I think, be fascinated by the weird natural history that has been discovered in the past 150 years — such as Wolbachia, bacteria that pervert the reproduction of insects for their own ends. (Wolbachia can have a number of effects, but one of the most common is to kill all a female’s sons. The reason is that sons don’t transmit Wolbachia, so from Wolbachia’s point of view, they are a waste of space.) I’m not sure he’d enjoy analyzing DNA sequences — he might find it a bit too abstracted from the living organism — but I think he’d be delighted to learn the results. I think he would be shocked by how much we know about the so-called model organisms — worms, toads, fruit flies, mice, humans and the bacterium E. coli — and how little we know about everything else. And I think he’d be startled by the nature of scientific research — the scale of the enterprise, the cost, the pressures to publish and the degree of specialization that results. His brand of science — 20 years of thinking about a problem before publishing — could not be done today.
But I digress. To return to my argument: I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.
It does not. In the years ahead, I predict we will continue to refine our understanding of natural selection, and continue to discover new ways in which it can shape genes and genomes. Indeed, as genetic data continues to flood into the databanks, we will be able to ask questions about the detailed workings of evolution that it has not been possible to ask before.
Yet all too often, evolution — insofar as it is taught in biology classes at all — is taught as the story of Charles Darwin.
Semantics, that’s what we call this. A war of words. It seems similar, if belated, to the effort by proponents of Intelligent Design to recast the debate over evolution and creation by promoting not God but a divine watchmaker.
Salman Hameed, an astronomer at Hampshire College who writes the blog Science and Religion News, thinks the name change would be beneficial because “a favorite strategy of creationists like Harun Yahya, is to link Darwinism with atheism, secularism, and even with terrorism and racism.” The picture on Yahya’s book cover, connecting Darwin with Hitler, isn’t untrue, but it’s way out of context. yes, eugenics, a byproduct of evolutionary biology, was a major inspiration for Hitler; Darwin, however, was dead, long, long before the rise of the Nazis and likely wouldn’t have been an advocate for their ideology.
You can read the rest of Judson’s post at her NYT blog.
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