Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Unremarkable Origin of Species

The most surprising facts are (1) Darwin’s Origin of Species is still a lightning rod for religious fundamentalists and (2) in various locales those fanatics actually gain control of publicly-funded education. 

Unlike Galileo’s Two New Sciences and William Gilbert’s De Magnete (both reviewed on this blog), Darwin’s work stood on a generation of similar explorations and discoveries.  Darwin was only in the right place and time to earn 150 years of rebuke.  Moreover, The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or: the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life took the uniformitarian side against catastrophism in what we now regard as a false dichotomy.  Nonetheless, his theory is surprisingly robust despite the fact that he had no way to know the actual mechanisms of inheritance. 

Two girls about 10 and 8 years of age examine a lower leg bone which is larger and longer than both of them put together.
World's Largest Dinosaur.
Cleveland Museum of Natural History here.
Darwin acknowledged George Leclerc Comte de Buffon, George Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire, and ten others, before concluding with Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russell Wallace, and (“Darwin’s bulldog”) Thomas Henry Huxley.  All of them asserted with various evidences and arguments that the species we know today did not always exist.  That roster began with Aristotle who pointed out that the forms of our teeth—incisors in front, molars in back—developed by adaptation.

Darwin apparently did not know the work of William Smith who mapped the geological strata of England.  Smith sought to predict the presence of coal deposits, in part, by noting that simpler forms of prehistoric animals never appear above more complex forms of the same type.  (On NecessaryFacts here.) 

In 649 pages (Modern Library paperback, 1998), Darwin laboriously details the small facts of variation, and the consequences of them for survival and reproduction.  Accepting Charles Lyell’s estimate that the Earth is more than 300 million years old, Darwin sought to demonstrate that over spans of geological time, many small changes accumulate into large and permanent differences among both plants and animals. It seems hard to argue against that.


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