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Happy Anniversary to “On the Origin of Species”

Turtles, all the way down. :)

Though it might seem hard to believe in some circles, today marks the 153rd anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s foundational text “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection”

Darwin’s “theory,” which now underlies much of modern biology, is summarized in the fourth chapter in this way (quote from Wikipedia):

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But, if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

 With his theory, Darwin presented a mechanism by which life itself could create the complexity by which it is characterized, so that no “intelligent designer” beyond life is necessary to understand life’s complexity.  Richard Dawkins has characterized this slow process as “climbing Mount Improbable,” a description that captures the ability of the evolutionary process to create astonishing complexity and diversity given the vast amounts of time and material it has had to work with.

  1. Anonymous Catholic
    November 24, 2012 at 11:39 am | #1

    In July 2007 at a meeting with clergy Pope Benedict XVI noted that the conflict between “creationism” and evolution (as a finding of science) is “absurd:”

    “Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.”

    In commenting on statements by his predecessor, he writes “it is also true that the theory of evolution is not a complete, scientifically proven theory.” Though commenting that experiments in a controlled environment were limited as “we cannot haul 10,000 generations into the laboratory”, he does not endorse Young Earth Creationism or intelligent design. He defends theistic evolution, the reconciliation between science and religion already held by Catholics. In discussing evolution, he writes that “The process itself is rational despite the mistakes and confusion as it goes through a narrow corridor choosing a few positive mutations and using low probability…. This … inevitably leads to a question that goes beyond science…. Where did this rationality come from?” to which he answers that it comes from the “creative reason” of God.”

  2. November 24, 2012 at 11:55 am | #3

    “But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.”

    To say “everything comes from God,” and to then decline to answer the question “where did God come from,” is, to an honest person, to say “I don’t know where everything comes from.” And that latter answer strikes me as perfectly admirable. In fact, I believe that’s the current statement of science: there was a big bang; before that, there was nothing; we don’t know why suddenly there was something, but once there was something, we think it did these things.

  3. Goldie
    November 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm | #4

    Here’s some species conversation for you. “A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch,” living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.”

  4. Anonymous
    November 24, 2012 at 12:03 pm | #5

    The prevailing theory is that the universe started from a quantum fluctuation, that the natural state of the universe is to have something rather than nothing. Give Lawrence Krauss a listen.

  5. November 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm | #6

    Melba’s not saying anything we don’t all already know — Bigfoot lives. You don’t need a five year DNA study to prove that, but it might take that long to come up with a sentence like this one:

    The study was conducted by a team of experts in genetics, forensics, imaging and pathology, led by Dr. Melba S. Ketchum of Nacogdoches, TX.

    How do I know Bigfoot lives? True, there’s no evidence (or wasn’t any until Melba’s study.) I rely totally on faith.

  6. November 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm | #7

    I’ll give it a listen, #5, but I don’t imagine that “quantum fluctuation” or “desired state” can explain why there is a universe at all. It might present a good theory of why things evolved as they did, but not why there is space or time. (Unless I’m missing the point, which is possible. I’ll listen when I get a chance.)

  7. November 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm | #8

    Now? now? we’re offered to distinguish/divide/separate between Catholic and ‘other’ religions. God, if you will, is as the ‘container,’ that thing which we cannot distinguish. Because as soon as we do, as soon as we label ‘that,’ well then ‘that’ is not what it is.

    To Popes – God, stands for Gold, Oil, Drugs. So, how about the word ‘Source?’ I like it because there’s no gender i d e a attached.

    “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
    Denis Diderot (1713-1784).

    “The history of the world is the triumph of the heartless over the mindless.”
    Sir Humphrey Appleby (and he should know).

  8. Plain Jane
    November 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm | #9

    Regardless the source of the universe, the idea that flawed mortals can speak for that source is preposterous.

  9. November 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm | #10

    From your lips to God’s ears, PJ. :)

  10. Anonymous
    November 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm | #11

    Goldie :
    Here’s some species conversation for you.

    Someone needs a primer in peer-reviewed research.

  11. Anonymous
    November 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm | #12

    Mitch :
    I’ll give it a listen, #5, but I don’t imagine that “quantum fluctuation” or “desired state” can explain why there is a universe at all.

    It does exactly that. It addresses the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

  12. Anonymous
    November 24, 2012 at 1:51 pm | #13

    Oh, Christ!

  13. Barry Evans
    November 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm | #14

    I’m usually a fan of Lawrence Krause, but not of his latest, referenced above. David Albert gave it a well deserved thumbs-down in the NYRB
    The idea that quantum fluctuations, or the laws that allow them, are “nothing” seems awfully sloppy, to say the least.

  14. Erasmus
    November 24, 2012 at 3:26 pm | #15

    I admire Darwin but find his theory overrated. As Jonathan Weiner writes in ‘The Beak of the Finch’ (winner of a Pulitzer Prize), ‘Origin of Species’ “does not document the origin of a single species, or a single case of natural selection, or the preservation of one favored race in the struggle for life.” Darwin himself, in his ‘Autobiography,’ says this, in passing: “Although in the ‘Origin of Species’, the derivation of any particular species is never discussed……” Richard Dawkins customarily places Darwin on a pedestal that is far too high, but he is on the right track when he says that the riddle of consciousness is the greatest key to a deeper understanding of human life (see the book ‘Predictions,’ edited by Sian Griffiths). i predict that Darwin’s “theory” will play a small role in elucidating the mystery of consciousness.

  15. November 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm | #16


    What is it about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that you find overrated?

    For evidence supporting the evolution framework, this can be helpful: http://www.nature.com/nature/newspdf/evolutiongems.pdf

    For a brief video and discussion of the evolution of the eye: http://www.wimp.com/eyeevolution/

    For evidence of evolution and the emergence of homo sapiens: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence

    And, once selfish gene theory is added, evolution nicely explains many aspects of animal and human psychology, as shown in this half hour lecture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAfZd1lVZvo

    Note that while “selfish gene theory” is great shorthand for those who understand it as a mathematical phenomenon, it is terribly misleading for those who anthropomorphize genes, and imagine them acting in selfish ways.

    Selfish gene theory simply means that natural selection does NOT act on individuals, but on genes. It only seems as though it acts on individuals because individuals house genes.

    Selfish gene theory easily explains how altruistic behavior can evolve via natural selection, despite altruism involving individual sacrifice for others (against a naive view of reproductive fitness; altruism seen from the view of an individual is reproductively fit behavior for the genes that the individual contains).

    There is no morality or lack thereof in “selfish gene” theory, any more than there is in a quadratic equation; it is not praising selfishness, it is explaining how altruistic behavior can arise from natural selection.

  16. humbilly
    November 24, 2012 at 6:36 pm | #17

    Darwin borrowed the theories of Wallace and Lamarck to expand into the Origin of Species…despite that he was as original and brilliant as Einstein, Bach and Edison

  17. Eric Kirk
    November 24, 2012 at 7:25 pm | #18

    Observed instances of speciation.


  18. Erasmus
    November 25, 2012 at 8:24 am | #19

    Overrated because (1) evolution was not a new concept when Darwin wrote his ‘Origin’ (his own grandfather, with the illustrious name “Erasmus,” developed his own theory of it — and was rarely mentioned by his grandson (2) ‘Natural selection” is a truism — each organism varies slightly from others, the offspring of certain organisms will be better adapted to their surroundings than others and therefore more likely to reproduce, and the cumulative effect of these changes will result in an altered species. It doesn’t take originality to come up with such a thought — as I said, it’s a truism, simple common sense, but it does take a huge leap of the imagination to think that ‘natural selection’ can explain how a bacterium turned into a human being after hundreds of millions of years, and Darwin doesn’t even attempt to answer such a question. —– As brilliant as Einstein? Hardly. (But culturally, just as important.) In France, Darwin is looked upon an as example of Anglo-Saxon science, and Lamarck is treated with much more respect than he is in our universities. These days, Darwin has become a lightning rod for religious disputes, with fundamentalists of the theistic and atheist persuasions facing off, and there are bumperstickers that read: DARWIN LOVES YOU. So much for science!———————————————–In short, Darwin is overrated not because he was “wrong” but because his theory doesn’t explain nearly as much as its adherents would have us believe, and the scientific value of what he wrote has been overshadowed by conflicts that are more philsophical in nature. He is NOT overrated as a cultural phenomenon.

  19. November 25, 2012 at 9:08 am | #20

    Regarding your first point, it’s not Darwin’s fault that “theory of evolution by natural selection” has been shortened to “evolution.” Darwin’s contribution was a theory of how evolution took place — natural selection — and a huge amount of field work in support of that theory.

    Erasmus Darwin’s theory was similar to Lamarck — that it was use of parts that made them grow.

    Charles Darwin explicitly credits Thomas Malthus’ work in leading him to his insight regarding natural selection:

    “In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work”.

    As for your second point, yes, exactly, evolution by natural selection, like all true scientific theories, is a truism. It lays out explicitly what in retrospect appears straightforward. That’s a rather odd accusation — to me, it sounds more like praise. If Darwin’s theory had been obvious, it would not have needed to wait for Darwin to write it down. And sexual selection as an explanation of animal characteristics goes well beyond “survival of the fittest,” to point out how fitness can depend on non-obvious things.

    As for what two of the world’s greatest twentieth century biologists have to say about Charles Darwin, there’s always this Charlie Rose (ugh) interview. In short, Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, calls Charles Darwin the most important person who ever lived, and Wilson, hardly a slouch, says (shaking his head in amazement) the man was always right.

  20. Erasmus
    November 25, 2012 at 9:57 am | #21

    This goes to show that every theory must have its saint. Wilson’s remark about Darwin always being right is a clue to what is happening in this interview —- he must know that, like all great scientists, Darwin was often wrong (and he changed his opinion on many issues, publishing at least 6 editions of his ‘Origin’). These two eminent gentlemen are not intellectual historians. The recently deceased Jacques Barzun was, and the first third of his book ‘Darwin,Marx,Wagner’ rebuts the claims of Wilson and Watson in this interview.

  21. November 25, 2012 at 11:51 am | #22

    if we believe “survival of the fittest:”why do we poison the scavengers and s””hoot the “wrong” owls. lets give credit to Linn aeus–he gave us universal namesi

  22. November 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm | #23

    Hi Jean,

    I guess because we consider ourselves to be the ones who should first survive; and because we are often mistaken in what we think will help that.

    But I think you know this. Nice to hear from you.

  23. November 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm | #24


    OK. Truth is, I’ve never spoken to Charles, Erasmus, or Jacques. If Darwin is overrated, so be it. He always seemed clever to me.

  24. Erasmus
    November 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm | #25

    What Darwin represents — a secular approach to understanding the origins of human life —- is certainly not “overrated,” so perhaps I’m being a bit pedantic. And the “Origin of Species” is the most persuasive book I’ve ever read —- until one realizes that the ultimate promise of the title has not been fulfilled.

  25. back in the saddle
    November 25, 2012 at 8:03 pm | #26

    Do you actually believe that animals have names for other species? And if you think naming them makes you intelligent, why don’t they come when you say their name? What is more intelligent, a dog or a cat? A dog does what you tell him, a cat ignores you. Point being = we think we are so smart, but what do we really know. Why don’t we just overrun the entire planet, using all the resources we want and ignoring the consequences. Called OVERPOPULATION.

  26. November 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm | #27

    When Linneaus w2as accused of playing God , he responded “God creates–Linnaeus

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