What Darwin Never Knew


In the year just past the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin was “celebrated.” I put that in scare quotes because as a conservative I’ve taken a lot of heat for my devotion to Darwin the man and to his scientific theory of evolution. Some conservatives embrace those doctrines that go by the name of “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design,” both of which I consider flapdoodle nonsense that are neither good science nor good religion.

Some smart people whom I admire in other respects seem to believe that Darwin was an evil man, or at least his theory is evil. Some blame the rise of Nazism on Darwin and his theory of evolution, or on its wayward step-sister Social Darwinism, a philosophy that was devised by others and not by Darwin himself. Social Darwinism postulates that the theory of natural selection in biology can be applied by analogy to social development. It heavily relied upon the concept of “survival of the fittest,” a term coined by Herbert Spencer in 1877 and which appears nowhere in any of Darwin’s writings. Social Darwinism is a theory I would place in about the same category of claptrap as Creationism or Intelligent Design.

Even those who credit Darwin with the discovery of one of the greatest ideas ever conceived must concede that subsequent research was required to explain the mechanisms of evolution. Genetics, for example, was unknown during Darwin’s life, since even though Gregor Mendel’s experiments in the cultivation of pea plants were conducted between 1856 and 1863, his work was ignored until it was rediscovered in the early 20th Century. Count me as one who believes that Darwin is one of the most important men in history, even though he was not alone in the discovery of evolutionary theory, and rushed the Origin of Species into publication in 1859 after sitting on his data for almost two decades because in 1858 he received an essay from Alfred Russel Wallace which described the same idea.

A familiar criticism of Darwin is that the theory of natural selection is “just a theory.” That’s true, but it is probably the longest lived and most successful theory in science. These critics also conflate theory in the scientific sense with something that someone simply imagined or fancied, and then offered forth. That might be true of what is called “Social Darwinism” which is a doctrine devised by others and has nothing to do with Darwin’s theory. But in science a theory must be based upon data collected from actual observation of natural phenomena. See my previous post, The Scientific Method. A scientific theory must be capable of being disproved, i.e., there must be something that if shown to be true would disprove the theory.

A week ago, on December 29th, PBS made a contribution to the debate over Darwin and evolution with a two-hour NOVA production called What Darwin Never Knew. Larry Arnhart calls it one of the best television documentaries on evolutionary science he has ever seen. If you missed it you can watch the entire two hours in HD at the PBS Website. A DVD will be available in early March. The documentary is stunningly beautiful and concentrates on research in the fascinating and relatively new field of Evo Devo.

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. When I was a child all school children knew that Abraham Lincoln just happened to be born that same day. Since Darwin and Lincoln pretty much make up the field of my heros, the friends I have most liked to spend time with, I was truly eager to read Rebel Giants-The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin when it was published in the fall of 2008. At first I was skeptical that any one person was likely to know the biography of both men well enough to write such a book but was happily surprised when I read it and saw that author David Contosta did an admirable job of it. It’s a great book.

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