Happy Anniversary to “On the Origin of Species”
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.