Tag Archives: 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.

Reflections on Darwin’s Origin of Species

The The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin was published over 150 years go. At the time, several different alternative theories of the origin and history of life were being discussed in the West. Some of these theories were theological. Theological ideas included a literal translation of the bible, with the flora, the fauna, and humans created in three separate but related creation events on a freshly made earth just a few thousand years ago. Another theological idea had an Abrahamic God’s hand involved in the history of life but in ways we were not likely to understand until after death. Still another idea, championed by the influential Louis Agassiz, had several God-made origins each representing a different combination of habitat, ecology, climate, and human race. Ice ages would periodically wipe everything out and then God would replace the bits, much like how a gamer re-creates a simulated landscape after system crashes or save failures in SimCity (See Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral for an excellent overview of this and related issues). Maybe the gamer does it a little differently each time, and maybe god did that too. Non theological ideas were emerging at the time as well including some like Darwin’s, but Darwin refocused and created de novo several of the key models that are part of Evolutionary Theory today, and it was Darwin and Wallace who advanced the specific theory of Natural Selection. These evolutionary ideas rested within a broader panoply of evolutionary ideas, some of which have faded away, others incorporated, others waiting to be reconsidered.
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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

Charles Darwin, Geologist

Everyone knows that Darwin was a biologist, and in many ways he was the first prominent modern biologist. Though Darwin scholars know this, many people do not realize that he was also a geologist. Really, he was mainly a geologist on the day he stepped foot on The Beagle for his famous five year tour. This is especially true if we count his work on coral reefs as a geological study, even though coral reefs are a biological phenomenon. After all, the standing model for coral reef formation at the time came from the field of Geology.

To exemplify this, I’ve put together a list of several of Darwin’s print publications with their publication dates:

Continue reading Charles Darwin, Geologist

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin Audiobook

Have you read The Autobiography of Charles Darwin? Do you read, er, listen to audiobooks? If so, did you know about this one?

Read by Greg Wagland:

This work, unsurprisingly, offers invaluable insights into the life and times of Charles Darwin, his personality and the formative influences that made him what he was, for here we have his own words and ‘voice’ at the close of a prodigiously productive career. He tells of his childhood, his student days at Edinburgh and Cambridge, his love of beetles, shooting and geology and of his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood. He talks at some length about his meetings with the great scientific men of the age, his attitudes to his critics, to religion and of his theories of evolution. He also discusses his scientific methods and the background to the publication of many of his works including ‘The Origin of Species’ and ‘The Descent of Man’, and how he came to join ‘The Beagle’ as naturalist. This is an indispensable work for any student of Darwin, of evolution and conceivably, creationism. It is undoubtedly the autobiography of a great man.Greg Wagland reads The Autobiography of Charles Darwin for Magpie Audio. Note: This is the version authorized and edited by his son, Francis. Francis Darwin and Charles’ wife Emma censored and excised some passages, in part to limit references made to his home life.

Here’s the audiobook.

Charles Darwin, Geologist

We know that Darwin was a biologist, and in many ways he was the first prominent modern biologist. But many people do not realize that he was also a geologist. Really, he was mainly a geologist on the day he stepped foot on The Beagle for his famous five year tour. This is especially true if we count his work on coral reefs as a geological study, even though coral reefs are a biological phenomenon. After all, the standing model for coral reef formation at the time came from the field of Geology.

Here is a list of several of Darwin’s first publications with their publication dates:

Continue reading Charles Darwin, Geologist

Seattle-ites: Strawberry Theatre Workshop does Darwin

Click Here to get tickets while they last!

Here’s a review: ‘Inherit the Wind’ airs current creationism debate

Last month Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a top candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, remarked, “Evolution is just a theory out there.” He also claimed Texas schools teach both evolution and creationism.

Perry was mistaken: In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public teaching of Bible-based creationism (or “intelligent design”) unconstitutional.

The creationism vs. evolution in schools debate has reared back into our national political dialogue, which may be reason enough to revive “Inherit the Wind,” a 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.

We don’t see many revivals of this sturdy courtroom drama…

Read the rest here

Louis Agassiz + Alexander Agassiz + Charles Darwin + Coral Reefs = High Entertainment and Science!

There are many fascinating stories linked to the early days of evolutionary biology and geology, and more than one of them is intertwined with our understanding of coral reefs. I had always thought that Darwin’s interaction with the question of how coral reefs form was central to Darwin’s own formation as a scientist, in part because of Charles Lyell. Lyell was the Big Kahuna of geology and earth science of the day, and had more or less established the standing theory of how coral reefs formed. Darwin, on observing reefs “in the wild” very quickly realized that Lyell was mostly wrong, and proceeded to develop his own models for reef formation. But Darwin was timid, intimidated even, in the light of Lyell’s monumental stature in the field. This, I think, caused Darwin to use a multi-faceted approach to documenting his ideas and developing his models that then became something of a template for his later work, On the Origin of Species.

What could have been a major showdown between Lyell and Darwin turned out much differently. By the time Darwin had returned from The VoyageBooks on Travelogues) (of the Beagle) Lyell and others were aware of Darwin’s new models of reef formation. If Lyell was going to have a negative reaction to Darwin’s revisions of his (Lyell’s) work, that reaction was significantly reduced by the delay between first hearing that there was a revision and meeting up again with young Charles. As I understand it, Lyell was quite happy to have his work overturned.

But there was conflict, and the conflict continued for decades and indirectly or directly engaged everybody who was anybody in the field at the time. David Dobbs writes:

Today the main argument about coral reefs is how to save them. But in the 1800s, the question of how coral reefs arose, known as the “coral reef problem,” ranked second only to the “the species question” in ferocity. In many ways it reprised the evolutionary debate, engaging many of the same people and ideas. It provided both an overture and a long coda to the fight over Darwinism. The coral reef problem did not concern the origin of species or humankind’s descent. Yet it reiterated the evolutionary debate’s vexing questions about the importance of evidence, the proper construction of theory, and the reliability of powerful abstractions.

Continue reading Louis Agassiz + Alexander Agassiz + Charles Darwin + Coral Reefs = High Entertainment and Science!

“If You Love Evolution, Tweet About It!” COE # 36

i-80e531b0d2456037296ea380dfc94a8a-_main_top_1872_Expression_F1142_327-thumb-300x300-65652.jpgWelcome to the Thirty Sixth Carnival of Evolution. The world of blog carnivals is in a state of flux and uncertainty these days, with the distinct possibility of a mass extinction just around the corner. One of the oldest, longest running, and most important carnivals, I and the Bird, issued its last issue only a few days ago, and the Keepers of the Carnival of Evolution themselves are said to be thinking about ways that this whole carnival thing can be made to work better. That could, I suppose, mean killing it and replacing it with something else. We are hopeful that this will not be something monstrous. Well, actually monstrous would be fine, I suppose, just highly unlikely to found a new species of scientific social networking.

With that thought in mind, I’d like you do to me a favor. If you are into evolution (which you probably are because you are reading this post) then help promote excellent evolution blogging. Do you have a facebook account? Good. Open up a selection of the following posts and if you like them or find them interesting, post them on your wall. Let your facebook friends see some of this interesting blogging. Do you tweet? Then tweet them! Oh, and go ahead and facebook-share and tweet this very carnival. Stumble, Digg, Reddit, Whatever. The idea is go get the word out that there is some interesting stuff to read, about evolution, on the intertubes. We want Evolution Blogging to be more linky and socially networked than other topics such as, well, creationism for example. This carnival is a pretty darn good listing of what has come out over the last few weeks across the blogosphere. So, your job as a lover of and promoter of evolution is to use this list of blog posts as a kind of todo list … working off this list, promote the posts.

I’ve taken a very straightforward approach to the carnival, which is my style; I let the posts speak for themselves. So, in the following listing you’ll see the title of each post and a brief excerpt. Click on the title to see the post. The categories into which I’ve divided the post make total sense and form a very good taxonomy of evolution blogging. For some of the posts. For others, the categories suck. It is not easy making categories for this sort of writing, as many of the posts are so darn multifarious, which is a good thing.

And now, the carnival:
Continue reading “If You Love Evolution, Tweet About It!” COE # 36

Ark Park Makes Mark with Darwinian Snark!

For that special organization or person that makes you throw up a little in your mouth when you hear about their latest aggravating attack on our children’s education, by way of making fun of something that is not really all that funny, DontDissDarwn Central annually awards the highly alliterated angs-ridden accolade: The Upchucky. And this year’s award is bestowed, nay, foisted on Answers in Genesis, for their latest dumb-ass venture, the Noah’s Ark Park.

“rooted in outright opposition to science…[this] hostility to science, knowledge and education does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future.”
-Lexington Herald-Leader

Click here to read about all of the nominees and find out what they wore to the ceremony.

NASA’s new organism, the meaning of life, and Darwin’s Second Theory

ResearchBlogging.orgIn his highly readable book, One Long Argument, Ernst Mayr breaks down the body of thought often referred to as “Darwin’s Theory” into five separate and distinct theories, the second of which being “common descent.” Darwin’s second evolutionary theory (second by Mayr’s count, not Darwin’s) is really a hypothesis that could be worded this way:

All life on earth descended from a single, original, primordial form that arose eons ago.

The evidence in favor of this hypothesis is strong, but the test of the hypothesis … the means of disproving it, which is, after all, the point of stating it to begin with … is difficult to define, but like pornography to a judge, one would know it when one sees it.
Continue reading NASA’s new organism, the meaning of life, and Darwin’s Second Theory