Darwin at 199

3 minute read

This Saturday (2/8/2008) is Darwin Day here at UW. My lab will be putting a display together at the Geology Museum in the afternoon -- you can find a full schedule and flyer at the UW Darwin Day website.

The real Darwin Day is February 12 (just like Lincoln!), and he was born in 1809 (just like Lincoln!). In honor of the occasion, Nature prints an essay by Kevin Padian reviewing Darwin's scientific legacy.

In the past century and a half, Darwin's ideas have inspired powerful images and insights in science, humanities and the arts. Meanwhile, countless commentators ignorant of his meaning have borrowed his eloquence to plump their own chickens -- from capitalism to 'evolutionary psychology'. Darwin has been invoked as the demon responsible for a variety of perceived heartless ills of society, including atheism, Nazism, communism, abortion, homosexuality, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and the abridgement of all our natural freedoms. One can scarcely imagine the horror that Darwin would feel at the misunderstanding, misappropriation and vilification of his ideas in the 125 years since his death.

The essay is a list of "big ideas" from Darwin, along with some of their later developments. Natural selection, monogenism, genealogical classification, the action of imperceptible forces over long periods of time ("deep time"), biogeography, sexual selection, coevolutionary relationships, gradualism, and natural economy all merit entries, along with a few others.

I particularly liked this passage describing Darwin's conception of coevolution:

One of Darwin's lesser-known books is On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing (1862). It encapsulates the concept that species of very different origins have evolved mutual ecological relations through time that have come to affect critical aspects of their morphologies. An African orchid was discovered that had a corolla nearly a foot long. Darwin inferred that there must be a moth with a tongue long enough to extract its pollen. When the moth sub-species was eventually discovered, it was given the name praedicta. Today we can identify groups of plants and their insect predators, vertebrates and their parasites, lichens composed of an alga and a fungus, and many other associations that can only reasonably be explained by co-evolution through diversification over millions of years (Padian 2008:633).

Padian includes about the amount of unwarranted hagiography you might expect. Darwin's being "less emphatic than Wallace about the pre-eminence of natural selection among other mechanisms of evolutionary change" seems good, until you reflect on the "other mechanisms" in the running -- mainly Lamarckism. And maybe Darwin didn't share Malthus' "bleak view" of the poor, but he certainly displayed a bleak view of Australian and South American native peoples in Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin should be forgiven the prejudices of the age, but it ill serves us to whitewash them.

Darwin's Origin ends famously with a passage that evokes poetic interpretation. Padian ends his essay with a quote from Thomas Hardy, one of the literary figures he describes as a recipient of Darwin's influence:

As Hardy put it: "Let me enjoy the earth no less / Because the all-enacting Might / That fashioned forth its loveliness / Had other aims than my delight." This child of the Enlightenment was well aware of more ancient world views, and humbled by what the new investigations of the cosmos revealed. Humans are animals, one species of many on the planet, bound by common ancestry to all other species, part of an ages-old dance of reproduction, accommodation, survival and alteration.

The first time, I read that last word as "alliteration." I guess it's my inner English major coming out...


Padian K. 2008. Darwin's enduring legacy. Nature 451:632-634. doi:10.1038/451632a