Expert view: Charles Darwin, one of greatest of all Britons
Feb 25 2009 by Val Javin, Huddersfield Daily Examiner
What was it that was so extraordinary that Charles Darwin did? And why should we hold him in such high esteem? Here Paul Elliott, lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Huddersfield investigates.
THERE are several noteworthy anniversaries in 2009 but none are possibly more momentous than the double anniversary that is the topic of this article.
Thursday, 12 February signified the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and it is also 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, his book that changed the world forever.
So what was it that was so extraordinary that Charles Darwin did? Darwin and the biologists of his time were faced with an enormous number of extremely puzzling observations, aspects of nature that simply didn’t make sense.
For example, the huge diversity of life on Earth and how it is geographically distributed. Many puzzles also came from the emerging science of geology.
Geologists had shown that sedimentary rocks were laid down over millions of years, younger rocks in the upper layers, older rocks in the lower layers.
But in these rocks are fossils, the remains of plants and animals preserved in the layers of rock that were forming when they died.
This fossil record essentially reads like a history book of life on this planet. The most striking observation is that species change, moving from old rocks to young rocks, and even more startling that modern species don’t appear in the record and that fossilised species are not present today.
These puzzles have led many throughout history to the same simple conclusion; life changes with time, life evolves. With this realisation of the changing, evolving nature of life comes the need to explain how this evolution occurs, and this is where Darwin comes in.
But Darwin was by no means the first to propose a theory of evolution. One of the first recorded evolutionary explanations for life was proposed by the Greek philosopher Anaximander (610-546 BC) who suggested all life forms evolved from fish. Others throughout history also postulated evolutionary changes in species including Darwin’s own grandfather. But it was Darwin that succeeded in constructing a powerful and persuasive explanation for how species change over time and backed it up with enormous amounts of evidence.
Darwin noted that in nature there was a struggle for survival between organisms but also that there was variation between individual organisms of a species. Look at humans; some are tall, others short, some muscular, others skinny, some fast runners, some slow…
In the struggle for survival, some individuals would therefore do better than others in obtaining food for example.
As such, those individuals are more likely to breed. Over time, the average characteristics of a group of organisms changes from one generation to the next becoming closer to the characteristics of the more successful individuals.
As time goes by, the nature of the species also changes and evolves. Over thousands to millions of years, groups of the same species can then diverge to become separate distinct species.
Over billions of years, this simple mechanism for change, natural selection, accounts for the diversity for all life on Earth, starting from a common ancestor.
The only problem for Darwin was that the mechanisms that pass characteristics from parents on to offspring were not known.
Since Darwin’s time, these mysteries have been solved by Mendel’s discovery of genes and Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, the molecule carrying the code for building an organism which is inherited by offspring in the genes from their parents.
With every major discovery, evolutionary theory has been added to and has become one of the most robust and successful theories of all time. Darwin stands alongside Einstein and Newton as one of humanity’s greatest minds.
There are of course those that oppose evolution and the reasons can be varied. Some say that it is “only a theory”, however, it is in fact both a fact and a theory (life does change with time and we have an explanation of how). There are those that find evolution distasteful, some because of the harsh competition for survival (which happens anyway), some because of hurt pride (it places man alongside, rather than above, the animal kingdom) and some because of the atrocities committed by man who used evolution as an excuse. But none of these reasons are valid for rejecting evolution.
Whether or not we find evolutionary theory preferable or whether it has been misused and abused makes absolutely no difference to its ability to do its job; it explains the facts in nature regardless.
The most vocal opponents are religious, Young Earth Creationists (YECs) who instead believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old and was created in six days as told in the biblical book Genesis, and their more recent incarnation, Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs).
These groups try to cast doubt on evolution as a controversial theory in crisis with what superficially seem to be scientific arguments, but arguments based on total (and often deliberate) misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. But when they have been given total freedom to defend their “science” in famous court cases in the US, they have failed to do so and have suffered devastating defeats.
This is because literal creationism is totally at odds with the evidence, it has long since been disproved.
In reality, evolution is not in crisis and there is no scientific controversy over evolution. In fact, it is possibly the least scientifically controversial theory in all science because there is so much evidence to back it up.
Darwin’s work has radically changed the way we view life on this planet, our place in it, and represents one of the more profound scientific ideas ever proposed. So this year, we should all celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest Britons to have ever lived.