In honor of Darwin

Darwin’s 200th birthday is this week, and Harvard is having a Darwin Day on Thursday which I will (alas!) be unable to make it to. (Just like I was unable to make it to the last Harry Potter book launch in the Square. I have rotten luck like that.)

The NYTimes has some great coverage of Darwin this week in their science section, both as a man and as a scientist. His story is one that is tragically ironic. A Christian who struggled with the ramifications of his discoveries, yet a man who is today reviled by many of those who share his core faith.

John Whitfield has been blogging the Origins as a run up to Darwin Day. An intriguing idea… I wonder how many biologists haven’t read it? I haven’t read it, but I’m not a biologist, and it is on my list. First off is Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale which is currently sitting on my bookshelf. (Speaking of which, now that the Kindle 2 is out, I could probably keep most of my collection in digital format with me much like I have virtually all of my music on my iPod…)

My favorite article of the bunch, so far. Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live:

Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. “Darwinism” implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. And “isms” (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. “Darwinism” implies that biological scientists “believe in” Darwin’s “theory.” It’s as if, since 1860, scientists have just ditto-headed Darwin rather than challenging and testing his ideas, or adding vast new knowledge.

Using phrases like “Darwinian selection” or “Darwinian evolution” implies there must be another kind of evolution at work, a process that can be described with another adjective. For instance, “Newtonian physics” distinguishes the mechanical physics Newton explored from subatomic quantum physics. So “Darwinian evolution” raises a question: What’s the other evolution?

Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him. He knew nothing of heredity or genetics, both crucial to evolution. Evolution wasn’t even Darwin’s idea.

Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus believed life evolved from a single ancestor. “Shall we conjecture that one and the same kind of living filaments is and has been the cause of all organic life?” he wrote in “Zoonomia” in 1794. He just couldn’t figure out how.

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, discovered that in pea plants inheritance of individual traits followed patterns. Superiors burned his papers posthumously in 1884. Not until Mendel’s rediscovered “genetics” met Darwin’s natural selection in the “modern synthesis” of the 1920s did science take a giant step toward understanding evolutionary mechanics. Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick bestowed the next leap: DNA, the structure and mechanism of variation and inheritance.

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