Darwin Turns 200; Charles Darwin Was Born into a World That Today's Scientist Wouldn't Recognize

By Siegfried, Tom | Science News, January 31, 2009 | Go to article overview

Darwin Turns 200; Charles Darwin Was Born into a World That Today's Scientist Wouldn't Recognize


Siegfried, Tom, Science News


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Two centuries ago, modern biology's founding father was born in England. He became the most celebrated scientist of his time, deciphering the records of life's history from creatures extinct and living and thereby explaining the genesis of life's diversity. Today his view of evolution by natural selection forms the core of the scientific study of life, and his mode of thought has earned its own addition to the lexicon of both scientific and popular discourse. Darwinian logic pervades the sciences of life, from the spread of viruses to interactions between and within human cultures, and has infiltrated other arenas as diverse as quantum physics and computer science. Far from a relic in textbooks, Darwinism breathes vitality into biology on a broad spectrum of research frontiers, inviting reflections on the life of, and the science made possible by, Charles Darwin.

When baby Darwin arrived on February 12, 1809, modern science was also in its infancy. Dalton had just recently articulated the modern theory of the chemical atom, but nobody had any idea what atoms were really like. Physicists had not yet heard of the conservation of energy or any other laws of thermodynamics. Faraday hadn't yet shown how to make electricity from magnetism, and no one had a clue about light's electromagnetic identity. Geology was trapped in an antediluvian paradigm, psychology hadn't been invented yet and biology still seemed, in several key ways, to be infused with religion, resistant to the probes of experiment and reason.

Then came Darwin. By the time he died in 1882, thermodynamics possessed two unbreakable laws, chemistry had been codified in Mendeleyev's periodic table, Maxwell had discovered the math merging electricity and magnetism to explain light. Lyell had established uniformitarianism as the basis for geology, Wundt had created the first experimental psychology laboratory, and science had something substantial to say about how life itself got to be the way it was--thanks to Darwin's perspicacious curiosity, intellectual rigor, personal perseverance and power of persuasion.

Superlatives are commonplace in accounts of Darwin's life. "An intellect which had no superior, and with a character which was even nobler than the intellect," wrote Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's champion in the original evolution debates. More recently Stephen Jay Gould called Darwin "the Muhammad All of biology." But all Ali did was fight. Darwin was more like Willie Mays--he could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. Translated to science, Darwin could read, reason, experiment, theorize and write--all as well or better than any of his contemporaries. Several scientists before Darwin had expressed the idea of evolution, some even hinting about the role of selection. But none had the wherewithal to perceive the abundance of evidence for evolution, deduce its many nuances, explain its mechanism, foresee and counter the many objections, and articulate it so convincingly to the world.

And even had Darwin never written a word about evolution, he would be remembered today as one of the 19th century's premier botanists, a superb entomologist and prominent geologist. He was a leading authority on carnivorous plants and coral reefs, pigeons and bees, earthworms and orchids, beetles and barnacles (especially barnacles). And yet he was never educated to be a scientist and held no academic position. All he brought to the scientific table was his brain. What a brain.

Woe unto the beetles In his youth, Darwin was an average student but an avid reader. He had an early interest in observing and collecting, mainly beetles and butterflies. ("Woe unto the beetles of South America, woe unto all tropical butterflies," a friend wrote in advance of Darwin's famous sea voyage.) When it came time for higher education, Darwin headed to Edinburgh, a few hundred kilometers north of his birthplace in Shrewsbury, England, to study medicine. …

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