Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Happy Darwin Day

Charles Darwin was born on Febrary 12th, 1809, and lived until 1882. He was a geologist who significantly advanced our understanding of how coral reefs form. He contributed to the study of archaeology through his study of soil formation processes. Darwin made many contributions to the collections of natural materials including insects and birds to major British museums and institutions of study. He was an experienced traveller, and reported on the ethnography of peoples around the world, especially in South America. He played an important role as keeper of the clocks on a major British mapping project, also in South America.

For more on Darwin click here and here.

Darwinism, Darwinian, Darwinist

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Oh, and Abe Lincoln too.

For Darwin’s birthday, I want to discuss the uses of the terms “Darwinism, Darwinian, and Darwinist.” Many have written about this and many don’t like any of those words, some seem to equally dislike all three. A couple of years back, writing for the New York Times, Carl Safina said,

Equating evolution with Charles Darwin ignores 150 years of discoveries, including most of what scientists understand about evolution. Such as: Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity (which gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism — genetics — by which it could work); the discovery of DNA (which gave genetics a mechanism and lets us see evolutionary lineages); developmental biology (which gives DNA a mechanism); studies documenting evolution in nature (which converted the hypothetical to observable fact); evolution’s role in medicine and disease (bringing immediate relevance to the topic); and more.

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.”

I don’t fully agree. Darwin proposed, discussed, and integrated into his theories of evolution the idea of inheritance. Yes, Gregor Mendel independently demonstrated an atomistic theory of inheritance and worked out key features of that process, essentially creating the concepts of “gene” and “allele” as we often use them today. Having said that, Mendelian inheritance turns out to be a very incomplete picture and more often than not is inadequate in real use. The difference between what we now know about inheritance and what Darwin needed to develop much of his evolutionary thinking isn’t really all that large. Darwin certainly did address developmental biology, in that he understood that life forms underwent changes within the lifetime that were controlled by the same factors that shaped any feature of those organisms. And so on.

In particular, Safina states that the term “Darwinism” puts too much emphasis on the contributions of one person and one book and one theory. But Darwin wrote more than one book on Evolution, and he proposed more than one theory. Mayr says there were five theories and makes a reasonable argument for that. Darwin even foresaw, though he did not develop, higher level behavioral theories such as kin selection.

Safina goes on to note that “We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism” and otherwise warns against the “ism”-ish nature of a word like “Darwinism” reminding us of Marxism, capitalism, Catholicism, and racism.

Before I go any further, I want to strongly agree with Safina and others who have eschewed the term “Darwinism” but not for most of the reasons stated. Darwin was a key figure in defining evolution, and for the most part, the “evolution” we know of today is Darwin’s evolution plus, not a form of evolution that required the overthrow of Darwin’s ideas. Newton was wrong. We can use the word “Newtonian” to refer to a subset of physics that work like Newton said they worked but only on a very limited scale. Newtonian mechanics does not describe how the universe, or reality, or matter and energy work. Newtonian physics changed from a theory of everything (dynamic and physical) to a mere approximation that is fundamentally flawed. Copernicism, as it were, more so. Darwinism (to use that term for just a moment) is still at the core of modern evolutionary thinking.

The reason to eschew the term “Darwinism” is for that final reason mentioned above: isms are sucky. So I’m fine with that. But evolution as we know of today is a Darwinian thing to a much much greater degree than physics as we know of it today is Newtonian (or for that matter, even Einsteinian!).

So, I’m happy to be a “Darwinist” but I’d prefer to use the term “Evolutionary Biologist.”

There is another term that people have elected to toss out for similar reasons: Darwinain. That is an error, and most biologists who would happily agree with Safina (and me) in avoiding Darwinism use Darwinian all the time. The term Darwinian refers to one part of Darwin’s body of theory: Selection. We say that during neurogenesis, neurons over produce and over connect, and then, over time, undergo culling based on use. Neurons that are used are retained, those that are not go away. It is said to be a Darwinian process, because it is a selection process in which over production is followed by selective retention or survival. There are other examples of Darwinian process that occur in biology, and of course, they happen outside of biology and the term is often used, including but not limited to the nefarious idea of Social Darwinian process.

And now, for your reading and listening pleasure, a few Darwinian blog posts:

A podcast celebrating Darwin’s birthday. The first part is great but the part with me starts at 15:10.

A few essays focusing on Darwin’s Voyage on The Beagle


photo of Darwin by kevinzim

Darwin and Wallace 1858

i-05aa92a8bbb538935c9ffec11e04d3da-Darwin_Wallace.jpg

Darwin and Wallace, chillin’
Let’s talk about Darwin and Wallace’s joint presentation on Natural Selection in 1858.

It is not usually the case that I write a blog post for a carnival. I usually just write for the blog, then now and then sit down and figure out which posts should go to with carnivals. That is not the case with this post.

Some time ago I thought, while writing a Peer Reviewed Research post, that it would be interesting to write up older papers, classics, or more recent papers that were of great interest for one reason or another but maybe a few years old. Just around that time, this idea of a classic carnival … a carnival of classic science papers … came around (details here and here), and I thought that was a very cool idea.

I have a plan to write a couple of different series of posts, one with Bob Trivers’ papers (see this for a taste), which will come along very easily, as I have taught a course based primarily on his work. Another would be on papers regarding Race and Racism. Again, this would draw heavily on my course on Race and Gender. A third stream of posts may come from the Bioanthropology tutorial I taught at Harvard. That was some years ago, so even the ‘current’ papers from that effort may now be classics (Tim Caro’s work with hyenas springs instantly to mind). Thinking about that approach led me to consider the first paper I usually assigned in that tutorial, and in fact, ‘the’ first paper in the field of evolutionary biology (perhaps, depending on your perspective).

That paper, I thought, is what this post should be about. Darwin and Wallace’s first composite paper on Natural Selection.

The only question remains: How many other people are going to do the same thing? Probably scads of them. So, I’ll have to make this a little different…..

Continue reading Darwin and Wallace 1858

Race, Gender, IQ and Nature

ResearchBlogging.orgNature, the publishing group, not the Mother, has taken Darwin’s 200th as an opportunity to play the race card (which always sells copy) and went ahead and published two opposing views on this question: “Should scientists study race and IQ?

The answers are Yes, argued by Stephen Cici and Wendy Williams of the Dept of Human Development at Cornell, and No, argued by Steven Rose, a neuroscientist at Open University.

I would like to weigh in.

Continue reading Race, Gender, IQ and Nature

Creationism and Evolution in the Classroom

So, yesterday Afternoon, there was a meeting of the Minnesota Atheists that included a one hour panel discussion of evolution, creationism, science education, and so on. The panel was moderated by Lynn Fellman, and included (in order from right to left as the audience gazed on) Randy Moore, Sehoya Cotner, Jane Phillips, Greg Laden, and PZ Myers.

There were several ways in which this discussion was interesting, and I’ll tell you a few of them here. Presumably PZ will have something as well. (UPDATE: PZ has this.)

To begin with, this was a pretty full room (a hundred or so?) and almost everyone in this room was an atheist, agnostic, rationalist, or some such thing, so the kinds of questions one gets are different than in other contexts. This did not obviate some of the common sorts of misunderstandings about human evolution, somewhat conservative/libertarian welfare stigmata, or even the occasional notation that “well we don’t call it a soul but there is a soul.”

One of the most interesting things that came out, I thought, was when PZ Myers, preparing to follow up on a comment I made, admitted publicly (and this was recorded on audio tape and at least two video camera, and there were plenty of witnesses) that I am meaner than he is.

An important theme that came up was how we teach evolution in classrooms that include dyed in the wool creationist student. Randy talked about being very straight up with the students about the fact that this is a science class. Sehoya talked about an experiment she is doing with her students, in which she does not mention Darwin the whole time but still teaches evolution.

Jane and I are not currently teaching at this level in UG college, so we did not have as much to say, but I noted my technique of yore: I make an explicit statement on day one that creationism would not be mentioned ever in this classroom. Then, for the rest of the semester, I mention creationism, always as an aside, always snarkily, always with disdain, always with humor, so an increasingly large number of students join in with uproarious laughter at the expense of the increasingly smaller and smaller number of “out” creationist. In other words, I invoke the ugly Weapon of Mass Destruction known as peer pressure.

PZ probably has the best method, which is to teach a course in the history of scientific thought with creationism/evolution as a theme, and then eventually get to the details of the biology. Even if that does not leave as much time as one might like to do the details of the biology itself, this would be a very valuable experience for the students.

I’m teaching a more advanced evo course next year. Maybe I’ll try something like that.

I just want to mention one point that I made that I feel is very important: There is a big difference between what can and should happen in a college classroom and a high school classroom, owing to the difference in relationship between instructor and administration, instructor and student, and instructor and parents. And school boards (colleges, we don’t have ’em!). These differences need to be kept in mind when discussing strategies. For example, PZ’s strategy and my strategy would not work in a high school. For long.

The Giants’ Shoulders # 8

“The Giants’ Shoulders” is a monthly science blogging event, in which authors are invited to submit posts on “classic” scientific papers. Information about the carnival can be found here.

The last Giants’ was hosted at The Questionable Authority, here. The next issue will be hosted at The Evilutionary Biologist: All Science, All The Time, which resided here.

Continue reading The Giants’ Shoulders # 8

Larry Moran Reread The Origin

It’s been a great pleasure to read the Origin of Specie … I had forgotten how clever Darwin was and how he carefully weighs his arguments for evolution.

I had also fallen prey to several myths about the book. For example, I didn’t realize that Origin of Species is all about speciation and the difference between species and varieties.

Go read all about it. Very much worth a look.

Darwin Year Panel Discussion, Sunday in the Twin Cities

Feb 15 – Darwin Year Panel Discussion Featuring Myers, Laden, Moore, Cotner and Phillips

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origins of Species. In honor of this, we have assembled a distinguished panel of scientists to give us their thoughts on evolution, creationism, and Darwin. The panelists are: PZ Myers, Randy Moore, Greg Laden, Sehoya Cotner, and Jane Phillips.

The discussion will be moderated by Lynn Fellman. Lynn is a frequent science interviewer on our Atheists Talk radio program. She is also an independent artist and designer (FellmanStudio.com) who incorporates science into her work.

This event is free and open to the public.

Location:
Rondo Community Outreach Library
461 N Dale St
Saint Paul, MN 55103
651-266-7400

Minnesota Atheists Feburary Membership Meeting

February 15, 2009

1:00-1:15 p.m. – Social time.
1:15-1:45 p.m. – MNA business meeting, including annual elections.
1:45-2:00 p.m. – Social time.
2:00-3:00 p.m. – Panel discussion.
3:00-3:30 p.m. – Social time.
4:00 p.m. – Dinner at a nearby restaurant.


Mn Atheist Web Site

Hints and Tips for Kicking Butt on the Wii Mario Kart

First of all, I want you to understand that I’m a lightweight in the Mario Kart game. Julia is not. So my pointers come mainly from watching her. (Watching her kick my butt, actually.)

I also want to make a few other comments that are not tricks, tips, or “cheats” on how to win, but rather, general observation.

Continue reading Hints and Tips for Kicking Butt on the Wii Mario Kart