Evolution and Religious Creation Myths: How Scientists Respond

By Paul F. Lurquin; Linda Stone | Go to book overview

2
What Is Evolutionary Biology and
Where Is It Coming From?

Evolution is a tinkerer.

—Franc¸ois Jacob, 1965 Nobel Laureate

The notion that living species of animals and plants are immutable is probably as old as humankind. A casual observation of the natural world does not readily suggest that species evolve or, for that matter, that the surface of our planet also changes over time. This is because human life spans are too short to witness these events directly, except in cases of catastrophic volcanic explosions and earthquakes. Nevertheless, the concept that lifeforms could evolve may first have been formulated in ancient Greece by the sophist Empedocles. This idea was quickly abandoned. It was not until the late 1700s that scientists (they were called naturalists in those days) realized that the apparent fixity of species and a seemingly mostly inert surface of Earth are illusions. At this time, several thinkers began to revisit the dogma of a young Earth and immutable living species. Five naturalists stand out in their overturning of the old ideas and their introduction of the notion of transformism in biology and the earth sciences: Georges Louis de Buffon (1707–1788) and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744–1829) from France, and Charles Lyell (1797–1875), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) from England. Through their works and those of their followers, we now know that Earth is very old, that its surface has been (and is being) constantly reshaped, and that living species change over time. In other words, these scientists introduced the idea of dynamic natural effects acting over long periods of time, overturning the old theory that nature is essentially static and [fixed] in time.


Buffon, Lamarck, Lyell, Darwin, and Wallace

Buffon was the first naturalist to propose that living organisms evolve, although he could not provide a mechanism for this evolution. Lamarck, his intellectual successor, picked up where Buffon left off and did propose an explanation for the evolutionary change of life-forms. He published his thoughts on the topic in 1801, followed by a more extensive book that came out in 1809, the year Darwin was born. Lamarck was a naturalist interested in comparative anatomy. This led him to categorize animals based on their

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