We Are All Intellectual Descendants of Charles Darwin

Article excerpt

Like most biology teachers, I spend much of my introductory biology course talking about evolution. Some of the discussion is explicit and traditional--for example, how Charles Darwin's father paid for Charles' adventure aboard the Beagle; the Beagle's stop in the Galapagos Islands; Darwin's work at Down House (Figures 1, 2); Darwin being "outed" by Alfred Russel Wallace; and the publication and impact of Darwin's masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. I then talk about some of the evidence for evolution, and repeatedly return to those ideas throughout the rest of the term. During the last week of classes, we talk about animal behavior, and I discuss kin selection. Although I've taught introductory courses for almost three decades, I still get excited about how, in this and several other instances, evolution explains what would otherwise be seemingly isolated, inexplicable "facts." Without fail, my blood pressure goes up, I become more animated, and I finally end the class--not by plan, but simply in appreciation and excitement--with something like "That ... is ... so ... cool." It's hard to disagree with Daniel Dennett's claim that Darwin's idea is the best idea ever. (Dennett, 1996).

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Although I greatly admire what Darwin did, I'm not among those who deify him. He was lucky to have rich parents, who gave him a remarkably privileged life characterized by servants, financial security, and never having to work. Like all of us, Darwin also had some quirks, and in his later years, Darwin became a virtual recluse. He never visited his daughter Anne's grave (he also skipped her funeral), nor did he attend the funerals of those to whom he owed so much (e.g., Charles Lyell). Most people have attributed some of these behaviors to Darwin's poor health. Darwin was lucky that his inherited riches accommodated the extravagances of such a privileged, isolated life. Regardless, however, there is no denying what Darwin accomplished.

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The other big ideas of Darwin's time--those of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud come to mind--have now faded, and are seldom mentioned. In contrast, Darwin's idea about evolution by natural selection--despite 150 years of intense scientific scrutiny and even stronger religious resistance--continues to define and point the way to answers for many of the central questions of modern biology. Evolution by natural selection unifies the study of biology; without evolution, biology is little more than lists of definitions, isolated (albeit interesting) facts, and an occasional dissected frog.

With this issue, The American Biology Teacher pauses to acknowledge the impact of Charles Darwin on our profession and society. This is quite a task, for Darwin's impact is hard to overestimate. Indeed, Darwin himself has become a large, thriving industry, and Darwin's image and name appear throughout society (Figure 3). Darwin's popularity persists despite the fact that Darwin's idea, like some other great ideas in science, questions one of our most defining traits--namely, our self-ascribed importance. Whereas geologists have taught us how little time our species has inhabited our ancient Earth, and astronomers have shown us the tiny place of our planet in the cosmos, Darwin has taught us that we share a long, incredible heritage with other organisms, and that we aren't nearly as special (and certainly not god-like) as many people would like to believe. …