The “Darwin Year”

| 11 Comments

Following on from Wesley Elsberry's post, readers may be somewhat surprised that Evolving Thoughts hasn't made much of the Darwin bicentennial and the Origin sesquicentennial so far. Well, I haven't needed to, given the number of other folk making hay from this. In particular I recommend Carl Zimmer's piece, over at his new digs with Discover magazine. Carl points out John van Whye's paper that showed that Darwin didn't "sit on the theory for 20 years" but rather followed a preplanned sequence for backing up his ideas. However, when Charles planned this research, he greatly underestimated the time it would take him (the Cirripedia volumes, where he dissected and described all known and extinct barnacles, took him much longer than he anticipated), and so it blew out from 8 to 20 years.

But there's another point I want to make about this anniversary, and it is this: Darwin, as important as he was, is not the crucial man in the history of biology. And to make this claim out, I have to discuss some theories of history, and how they affect the history of science.

Read more at Evolving Thoughts

11 Comments

Wilkins, I believe, is way off the mark here. The first three of his arguments that Darwin is touted too highly are as follows:

“In fact, evolution as we now have it is the result of all those “minor” figures contributing to both the logic and the empirical work; it doesn’t resemble much of Darwin’s views in many respects. Some changes since Darwin:

1. The branching tree is now a net, much of the time, because of lateral genetic transfer and hybridism 2. Selection is rarely if ever thought to cause speciation in sexual organisms; at best it makes isolated populations adapt to novel surroundings, causing some degree of reproductive isolation as a side effect 3. Inheritance is regarded as particulate: Darwin thought it blended”

Well, the “net” is not much of a net for complex organisms, because “lateral gene transfer and hybridism” haven’t made much of a dent in their genomes. Is the genome of primates, cats, teleosts, or angiosperms irrevocably messed up by gene exchange, so that we can’t construct a valid evolutionary tree? I don’t think so. Trees are still made and used routinely, and are quite informative.

I don’t understand #2 unless Wilkins is referring to Darwin’s idea that species evolve to fill up the polity of nature. In some respects this view survives, especially in ideas of sympatric speciation and ecological speciation. BUt at any rate, this is again a quibble. The main idea–that new species arise from old ones–is what is important.

Finally, so what if Darwin got the mechanism of inheritance wrong? It DIDN’T MUCH MATTER for his theory. Whether variation arises due to mutation or via “changed conditions,” it is still, as Darwin thought, the stuff of evolution.

The fact is that EVERY scientific discovery would eventually have been made by someone. Without Newton, we’d still have calculus, without Einstein, relativity. Darwin’s greatness did not lie in the fact that evolution was a unique, one-off contribution that couldn’t have been made by another. It lay in the fact that in The Origin and in his other works, Darwin put so much evidence together, in such a convincing way, that his theory was almost impossible to reject. His genius lay in waiting decades while accumulating evidence until that evidence crushed any intellectual opposition, in making clever analogies and arguments, such as the parallel with artificial selection, in his rhetorical skills, and in his use of evidence that other people might not have thought of, such as island biogeography. Above all, Darwin proposed all major tenets of evolutionary theory AT ONCE, rather than piecemeal. There is no guarantee that had he not done this, somebody else would have proposed such a complete theory. A.R. Wallace certainly didn’t, and probably wouldn’t have. At any rate, remember that The Origin contains all of the following six propositions, every one of which still holds in modern evolutionary theory

1. Organisms evolved (and began with one or a few early forms. 2. Organisms split, so that one lineage could become two or more (speciation) 3. That speciation led to common ancestry between any pair of species, so you could trace the tree back to nodes, and find evidence for those common ancestors 4. Natural selection was the main engine of evolutionary change, and the only process that could produce adaptation 5. Not all features, though, are adaptive–there are other processes of evolutionary change. 6. Evolution is gradual rather than instantaneous.

Who else could have proposed–and documented with evidence–ALL of these hypotheses in one neat package?

Jaco said:

Wilkins, I believe, is way off the mark here. The first three of his arguments that Darwin is touted too highly are as follows:

2. Selection is rarely if ever thought to cause speciation in sexual organisms; at best it makes isolated populations adapt to novel surroundings, causing some degree of reproductive isolation as a side effect

Darwin would asserted that point 2 is correct. In an argument he had with Wallace he asserted that species were an unintended side consequence of structural incompatibility between organisms and not a product of selection. His evidence was that horticultural grafts between distantly related species rarely if ever take, and this surely cannot be viewed as a product of selection, since tissue hasn’t been grafted around willy nilly in nature.

For myself, I haven’t seen much evidence to support this assertion and I think it is actually incorect, so I disagree with Darwin, because I think selection is important in creating species.

Jaco said:

The fact is that EVERY scientific discovery would eventually have been made by someone. Without Newton, we’d still have calculus, without Einstein, relativity.

Einstein was almost scooped to special relativity by Poincare. I believe Poincare hesitated at the idea of non-absolute time and so Einstein trumped him. The facts are a little obscure because the anti-semitic wing of the Einstein-basher faction (they’re a small minority among them but they are there) claims “the Jew Einstein” ripped off Poincare and so on. The usual lunatic-fringe muddying of the waters over marginal issues … “Einstein published first, deal with it people.”

Einstein flatly admitted that if he hadn’t come up with special relativity, somebody else would have soon enough.

On the horizontal gene transfer issue: I think the comparison is valid that the tree of life is still a tree, it just has twisted roots like a mangrove. I have heard Lynn Margulis has tried to make a case for the importance of gene transfers in the evolution of multicellar organisms, for example pointing to insertion of retroviral genes into the germ-cell line. However, few have been much impressed by this.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

Einstein flatly admitted that if he hadn’t come up with special relativity, somebody else would have soon enough.

Especially given that the equations of electromagnetic theory predicted a constant speed of light. Sooner or later somebody would have looked at the logical consequences of that prediction.

Henry

Henry J said:

Especially given that the equations of electromagnetic theory predicted a constant speed of light. Sooner or later somebody would have looked at the logical consequences of that prediction.

Henry

Giving up that absolute time was REALLY hard. Among the Einstein-bashers this is one of the prime complaints against him: “Give us back our absolute time!”

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

I’m just a layman here, but it seems obvious to me that having all the major elements of and evidence for evolution together, published in one book, accounts for most of Darwin’s reputation. Grains of sand blowing against adamantine may never make an impression. Sometimes you need a hammer.

midwifetoad said:

I’m just a layman here, but it seems obvious to me that having all the major elements of and evidence for evolution together, published in one book, accounts for most of Darwin’s reputation. Grains of sand blowing against adamantine may never make an impression. Sometimes you need a hammer.

And a bulldog. :-)

iml8 Wrote:

Einstein was almost scooped to special relativity by Poincare. I believe Poincare hesitated at the idea of non-absolute time and so Einstein trumped him.

Actually, many of the pieces of special relativity were out there before Einstein 1905. Lorentz, in particular, had most of the pieces. Even E=mc^2 predates Einstein.

Poincare most certainly understood the idea of non-absolute time before Einstein, and even wrote about it in one of his popular books that Einstein is known to have read. Poincare’s main problem was that he simply did not understand relativity. Even after 1905, Poincare did not get it.

The short explanation of why Einstein gets all the credit is simply that he was the first to understand what was going on in a straightforward physical manner. Lorentz and Poincare had complicated physical theories, and neither they nor anyone else really had any reason to believe them, and very little intuition to guide them, whereas Einstein offered a more or less trivial high school explanation with the simplest of intuitive foundations.

Neither Lorentz or Poincare were able to adapt to Einstein’s approach, and were for the most part ignored, with their contributions limited to eponymy. In contrast, when Minkowski 1908 took the first significant step beyond Einstein and introduced space-time as a single geometric concept and showed how to rederive special relativity using his metric, Einstein (after first rejecting Minkowski’s approach as mere mathematics) adopted Minkowski’s metric and eventually made the concept the linchpin of general relativity.

This form of argument, “Darwin is overrated because he synthesized so many other people’s ideas and work”, is a complete non-starter.

There was, for example, very little economics that was original with Adam Smith. But Smith put everything together for the first time, made the issues extremely clear, and wrote engagingly and persuasively. His predecessors have mostly disappeared from consideration. Why? Because they were stamp collectors, identifying charming little facts and nearly trivial laws, and not much more. Smith made economics a science.

The second kind of argument, “Darwin is overrated because biology has long since transcended so much of Darwin” is also a complete non-starter.

Again, a comparison with Smith makes this clear. Economics itself has long evolved into a huge discipline, at times barely recognizable, let alone compatible, with Smith’s work. It doesn’t matter. He started that particular ball rolling, and that was the most important contribution of all.

To be fair, I don’t think Wilkins was making the argument that Darwin is overrated. Instead, he was arguing that Darwin is merely a historical figure in science, and not actively affecting the course of biology today. He is quite right that scientist do not appeal to Darwin’s writings for our orthodoxy, but instead appeal to nature herself. As long as Darwin’s writings concur with nature, we will agree with them.

I concur with this belief. It simply happens to be the cause that Darwin saw nature for what she was. Since nature has not changes since the time of Darwin we could still most of his writing as a text book, even if it would the occasional foot note would be needed.

This is OT but !!!

Former state science director sues over intelligent design e-mail

05:20 PM CDT on Wednesday, July 2, 2008 By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

AUSTIN – A former state science curriculum director filed suit against the Texas Education Agency and Education Commissioner Robert Scott on Wednesday, alleging she was illegally fired for forwarding an e-mail about a lecture that was critical of the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. …

Here is the linky http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcon[…]84e885c.html

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This page contains a single entry by John S. Wilkins published on July 1, 2008 11:42 PM.

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