History, History Column


By Sarah Becker © 2016History-Charles Darwin with quote

It is an irony of history that two of the 19th century’s most epochal figures, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. Charles Darwin, a rich Brit with an instinct for discovery, forever changed the study of biology. In 1859 Darwin published his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. A second edition, as well as foreign editions, appeared in 1860 and coincidentally, three years later, President Abraham Lincoln mostly freed America’s slaves.

“The view which most naturalists entertain, which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous,” Darwin concluded. His theory of natural selection, of evolution, rocked the scientific world.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, the son of a prominent land holder. Unfocused, his teen-age hobbies included entomology (beetle collecting) and geology (the principles of). Darwin considered careers in both medicine (University of Edinburgh) and the ministry (Christ’s College, Cambridge) but neither stirred his passion.

At age 22, Darwin accepted an invitation to serve aboard the ship the HMS Beagle. Robert FitzRoy, an aristocratic sea Captain, wanted an intellectual equal to share his evening mess. Darwin’s position evolved from that of Captain’s companion to self-taught naturalist.

The HMS Beagle left Plymouth, England, for South America on December 27, 1831. Its five year mission was to map various countries’ coastlines. Darwin liked to explore the countries’ interiors, including parts of Argentine Pampas, the Atacama Desert, and the Andes mountains. There he discovered fossil-rich sea cliffs, armadillos, giant sloths, mice and the celebrated Galapagos finches. Darwin eventually collected 27 species of South American mice including Mus darwini.

“We passed the night in Punta Alta, and I employed myself in searching for fossil bones; this point being a perfect catacomb for monsters of extinct races,” Darwin wrote in 1833.

“I have been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampan formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that of the existing armadillos,” Darwin continued. “It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified.”

According to Darwin the best of each animal population adapted and survived through natural selection. He and FitzRoy coauthored an article and in 1837 Darwin gave his first paper to the Geological Society of London. He published his Journal of Researches in 1839, also known as the Voyage of the Beagle then occupied himself with his theory of “descent with modification” for the next 20 years.

In June 1858 Darwin realized that he was not the only researcher to promote the theory of natural selection. Alfred Wallace reached a similar conclusion while collecting fossils in Indonesia. Wallace shared his results with Darwin and they theirs with the public. Darwin also acknowledged T.R. Malthus for his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population.

Like any competitive scholar, Darwin rushed to publish. Not everyone accepted his theory of evolution as fact. Especially in 1871 when Darwin argued that “man descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.”

History-Photo by Joel Satore, Photo ArkCharles Darwin died in 1882, the continual subject of religious and social controversy. President Woodrow Wilson acknowledged his theory as truth but segregated the U.S. Civil Service anyway. It was the 1920s—Wilson left the President’s office in March 1921—before population geneticists embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution. The early conclusion: Mankind was no longer the culmination of life but merely part of it. Creation was mechanistic.

“Since the days of Darwin, investigators of evolution have shown an increasing tendency to move away from mechanical interpretations of life toward creative interpretations,” the Alexandria Gazette reported in 1925. “The mechanistic doctrine of evolution, which early evolutionists regarded as the actuating motive of change and adaption, has encountered difficulties….” Science teacher John Scopes’ Trial, the Monkey Trial was held in Tennessee in July 1925. Florida’s public school science standards did not use the word evolution until 2008.

“The newer explanation of evolution considers mankind as the partial product of all previous evolution of life, plant as well as animal, and also as the partial result of man’s own capacity for creative action,” the Alexandria Gazette concluded.

“After four billion years during which life on Earth evolved according to the principles of natural selection, science is now giving us the possibility of changing the most basic rules of life and starting a new kind of evolution, evolution by intelligent design,” Yuval Harari said in an interview with The World Today. Harari’s best-selling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was written in conversation with his students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Science is giving us the opportunity to start creating non-organic life,” Harari explained. “The movement from natural selection to intelligent design; from organic to non-organic life could be the greatest revolution in the history of life.”

“With the rise of biotechnology, there is a possibility of making some people smarter, more creative or courageous,” Harari continued. “People who study creativity say that most of creativity is really just pattern recognition at a very sophisticated level. And pattern recognition is exactly what computers are now learning to do better than humans.” Long running Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings lost his televised battle with IBM’s Watson computer.

“Bodies and minds are probably going to be the two most important products of the 21st century, and the ability to produce bodies and minds will revolutionize our society and economy,” Harari insisted. “If we allow market forces a free hand, there is a distinct possibility that the result will be the splitting of humankind into different biological castes.” In India caste differences are cultural.

“The key is to use technology for our own purposes and not to let technology use us for its purposes,” Harari concluded. “It is difficult to get it right because most people are not sure of their purposes. Yet we are reaching a point where Google and Facebook actually know us better than we know ourselves.” Google company Calico’s mission is “to solve death.”

Is evolution mechanistic, automatic and impersonal, or creative, by divine and irrevocable fiat? “The tendency of life is to live,” Darwin declared, “and the reason why species differ from one another is because each represents an effort to adjust itself more favorably to its environment.” Climate change is cause for concern.

“However creativeness is admitted into any theory of evolution, mechanism must give way,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote in 1925. “Creativeness is the principle of evolving the new; not curtailed by the past, but addition to the past what has never been before.”

“We’re upgrading ourselves to God,” Harari added in 2015.

Photographer Joel Satore’s PhotoArk, an ongoing District National Geographic Museum exhibit, is the largest single archive of studio quality biodiversity photographs ever. The more than 5,000 images, all taken within the last ten years, embody critically endangered and recently extinct animal species. The exhibit runs until April. For more information, visit ng.museum.org.

On Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdate, George III sat on England’s throne. Thomas Jefferson was preparing for James Madison’s presidential succession. And Enlightenment, intellectual insight, was giving way to Romanticism.   Both men “wrestled with religious doubt.”


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