Celebrating Evolution the Web Way

By Mattison, David | Searcher, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Celebrating Evolution the Web Way


Mattison, David, Searcher


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'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution'

--Title of Theodosius Dobzhansky's American Biology teacher article (March 1974).

No scientific theory has been as controversial as that of biological evolution. The first scientifically based form of the theory was fully revealed in 1859, based on the observations of two English naturalists, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913).Their travels, collecting, and observations overlapped but did not intersect. Shaped by their data and hypotheses (and, in Darwin's case, experiments), both men came to similar conclusions, namely that life on Earth was not shaped by some kind of single act of divine creation and all that implied. Darwin spent 20 years conceiving his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (various editions at http://darwinonline.org.uk/ or http://books.google.com). It was an instant bestseller. What partially persuaded Darwin to publish was Wallace's own nearly identical conclusions based on his own research. The key concept in Darwin's book, which he drew from exposure to Wallace's work, was the mechanism of natural selection.

The other, equally controversial point of Darwin's theory was that of descent with modification, usually illustrated in the form of a tree or bush of life. Darwin expanded on this aspect of his theory in his 1871 treatise on human evolution titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (various editions at http://darwin-online.org.uk/ or http://books.google.com). His conclusion, that humans are descended from primates, is one of the principal sources of religious opposition to biological evolution. For a current, collaborative view of life's taxonomy and phylogeny (evolutionary history) as seen by biologists, go to The Tree of Life Web Project [http://www.tolweb.org].

This year marks a twin anniversary for Darwin - the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work. Darwin took a long time to publish his evolution theory because he knew his theory would be attacked and he wanted to ensure the strength and order of his data, experiments, and arguments. As Niall Shanks points out in his book God, the Devil, and Darwin:

Darwin's theory of evolution was but one of a series of evolutionary theories that had been proposed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Darwin's theory is important because it contains an explicit statement of how a natural, unguided mechanism, operating in accord with the laws of nature, could bring about the structures and processes that others, such as [William] Paley, believed could be explained only as a result of intelligent, supernatural causes.

(p. 50, 2007 paperback edition)

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The transformation of much of the biological sciences following the 1953 discovery of DNA's structure by James Watson and Francis Crick further strengthened acceptance of Darwin's theory. Biologists extended his model through genetic experiments that drew upon plant and animal breeding experiments beginning with the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in the 1850s, work rediscovered in 1900 by European botanists. In addition to the genetic evidence supporting evolution, other sciences as seemingly unrelated as geology and cosmology, and of course paleontology, also buttressed Darwin's theory to the point where it's treated as fact. Darwin's theory is accepted because it's the simplest and strongest explanation that does not rely on super-or supranatural forces to account for all available data.

My own interest in evolution stems from the viewpoint of the ongoing clash between science and the antievolutionists, chiefly those who believe that a supernatural being created all life and continues to intervene, when and where necessary, in the development of life on Earth. …

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