Darwin's Birthday Gary L. Bennett
Gary L. Bennett
On 12 February we celebrate the birthday of possibly the world's greatest scientist: Charles Robert Darwin. Born on that day in Shrewsbury, England, Charles Darwin would belie his early sporting life to write what some have termed the most revolutionary book in science: The Origin of Species.
After a five-year, 40,000-mile voyage on H.M.S. Beagle in which he observed a wide range of natural phenomena (including an earthquake and volcanoes) and in which he collected many specimens, Darwin began to realize that the myths in Genesis did not account for the natural world with its incredible diversity of life.
Just as Darwin and others had observed that the land had undergone great physical changes Darwin began to suspect that organisms would vary too until new species arose. These species would not be independently created but would have descended from other species.
Darwin did not rush to print because he was a careful man. He continued his studies and researches. He contacted experts in many fields to gather information. He raised objections to his own ideas.
After 23 years of work, in 1859 he published The Origin of Species in an edition of 1250 copies. The edition sold out that day - and the book continues to sell well today. The book has been called 'the most fundamental of all intellectual revolutions in the history of mankind'.
Darwin and another English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had observed that species vary by location and by time. Today we describe that process by the term 'evolution' which means the 'change in the hereditary characteristics of groups of organism over the course of generations'. Given the fact of evolution Darwin searched for a theory of evolution to explain what he had observed.
Both Darwin and Wallace had read Reverend Thomas R Malthus's essay on population. Malthus had argued that human population would be kept in check by limited resources, diseases, and wars, all of which he lumped into the categories of 'vice' and 'misery'. Clearly something similar was operating in the natural world and that something was what Darwin termed 'natural selection'.
Evolution as Darwin saw it rested on six points. First, organisms produce more offspring than can survive. Anyone who has tramped through the woods has seen this. Certainly, the annual winter death toll is testimony to this fact.
Second, the offspring have variability that is slight, but meaningful for survival. Anyone who has looked at a litter of puppies or kittens has no doubt been struck by the differences among them. Human siblings also differ from each other.
Third, there is a struggle for existence. Every animal in the wild is in a continuous race to find enough food and adequate shelter. Until the advent of modern civilization we humans were in a similar race (and some in the world still are).
Fourth, those most suited to the conditions in which they live survive and reproduce. This point is almost axiomatic. Obviously we are all descendants of people who lived to reproductive age.
Fifth, favorable traits are passed on to offspring.
And finally the mechanism for evolution is natural selection. There is nothing mysterious about natural selection--it is simply the 'greater reproductive success among particular members of a species arising from genetically determined characteristics that confer an advantage in a particular environment'.
It cannot be emphasized enough that there is nothing anti-religious in Darwin's theory; in fact, evolution is silent about religion. The major Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious denominations in the U.S. have accepted evolution as the way God works. Creationists sell God short when they insist upon a 6,000-year-old flat Earth with the Sun traveling around it.
There is an almost religious feeling in Darwin's final sentence: 'There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved'.