The Evolution of Darwin's Theory

Article excerpt

Byline: John Donovan For The Register-Guard

What do the sciences of chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, biology, paleontology, anthropology and sociology all have in common?

Not only are these diverse fields in broad and detailed agreement with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, many scientific explanations from these eight disciplines are fundamental to our knowledge of the facts of evolutionary change over time.

For example, astronomy underlies our understanding of the formation of the Earth. Physics provides radiometric and isotopic data for geological timelines and climatic cycles. Geology is the "bedrock" of the evolution of the continents, oceans and atmosphere. And paleontology overwhelms us with an abundance of fossil evidence reconstructing the history of life.

Biology continues to generate an ever-expanding body of molecular, genetic and population data that has only confirmed, in the words of noted evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, that "nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution." And insights from anthropology and sociology are helping us understand the intersection between our animal heritage, psychological and social behavior, and our human culture.

In fact, when at various historic moments scientific claims have been found to be in disagreement with Darwin's revolutionary insight, it's the theory of evolution that has held the day as scientific evidence accumulated.

Darwin's early insights were amazing especially because while he could observe the implications of his theory, he had no idea of the actual mechanisms of evolution. Today, scientists have a vastly more detailed biochemical understanding of exactly how species change and diverge, not only through natural selection but through other mechanisms such as genetic drift and gene transfer between species.

Thursday is Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, and 2009 brings the 150th anniversary of the publication of his opus "On the Origin of Species." Thus it seems worthwhile to reflect on the significance and impact this man and his theory have had on the sciences, on modern society, and on our view of ourselves on this planet.

For one thing, it's not only the sciences that have benefited from the power of Darwinian explanations. Most of modern medicine and public health would not be possible without an understanding of evolution.

Even the field of engineering has been affected by the principles of the "nonrandom selection of randomly varying characteristics." Today, engineers routinely use evolutionary methods to calculate optimum wing shapes for fuel efficiency and combustion chambers for maximum rocket thrust.

And even the "dismal science" of economics is now making use of insights from human evolutionary psychology to understand why investors do not always make rational choices based on their own enlightened self-interest, but instead sometimes behave more like panicked herd animals.

But from a national and political perspective, why is evolution important today? Because evolution provides a powerful framework for investigating the planet on which we live.

Without evolution, the astonishing variety and diversity of the natural world is merely a collection of random and disconnected facts. Add evolution, and all of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere. Understanding not only becomes possible, but those insights are constantly used by scientists, doctors and engineers - and, today, increasingly by farmers and public health officials.

Evolution is immediately relevant here and now. It is not just an abstract subject that deals with the age of the planet, or how a fish first flopped onto a riverbank to lay its eggs away from predators.

The increasing effect humankind is having on our planet through habitat loss, pollution and climate change not only concerns frogs, ocean coral and weather patterns. …