Today is the 200th Anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and this year marks the 150th Anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species.
The premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that all life, from mammals to single celled organisms, is related through descent with modification from common ancestral stock. The mechanism he proposed to explain descent with modification was natural selection.
“But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this-we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.” W. Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise – quotation from title page of Origin of Species, First Edition
Last month we listened to Melvyn Bragg’s superb series of In Our Time programmes which assessed Darwin’s ideas and achievements over four programmes.
In an interesting essay on the OU website, Paul Underhill sums up the impact and significance of Darwin’s work:
He effectively completed the project embarked upon by Copernicus when he dethroned the earth from its special place at the heart of God’s universe. After Darwin, not even man was special or the most favoured species in the eyes of God. Darwin’s fundamental scientific idea connected all life together; all life to nature – above all, linking humanity to nature. We, too, have evolved, just like other creatures and could no longer be viewed as separate from or above nature by divine dispensation…
For all his Victorian respectability, I like to envisage Darwin as a progressive who, if he were alive today, would delight in debunking the daffy reactionary nonsense of present-day Creationists and perhaps even take issue with today’s “ultra-Darwinists” and their blinkered obsession with genes and memes. In any event, Darwin should be viewed as a great revolutionary who inaugurated a new era in the cultural history of mankind – a titan of a scientist and, in his own idiosyncratic way, a titan of a man.
It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will pass, every few years through the bodies of worms…The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures. Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms
The final passage of Origin of the Species:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Gillian Beer writes:
In the Origin Darwin also expanded the idea of family, away from the human only, away from what he called the exclusiveness of “pedigrees and armorial bearings”, to embrace all “the past and present inhabitants of the world” – and by “inhabitant” he did not mean simply the human. Instead of being “special creations”, all organic beings are, as an outcome of his theory, “lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch”. We are all “the offspring of common parents”, and for Darwin this inclusiveness is the “grand fact” he has uncovered.
In the conclusion to the Origin, Darwin seeks to hearten and reassure the reader: “When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendents of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.” We are part of the grandest of all families, he suggests, because we are part of the oldest family (that criterion by which the grandeur of aristocratic families is judged). His theory challenges apartheid in all its forms, including that between the living and the dead.
The Darwin Debate
Melvyn Bragg and a panel of scientists debate what Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us about ourselves and human society. Filmed for the old BBC Learning channel in 1998 at the Linnean Society – the world’s oldest biological society – in Piccadilly, London.
Panel:Steven Pinker, professor of Psychology at MIT; Meredith Small, Cornell professor of Anthropology; Steve Jones, biologist and a professor of Genetics and head of the Biology department at University College London; Sir Jonathan Miller, polymath.
This clip includes a recreation of the first debate on The Origin of Species from the 1978 TV series The Voyage of Charles Darwin.
- Charles Darwin: Open University
- BBC Darwin homepage
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: BBC/OU series with Andrew Marr
- Darwin’s Garden: BBC/OU series with Jimmy Doherty
- In Our Time: listen again to Melvyn Bragg’s series
- So simple a beginning: a collaboration between academics and science writers- commentaries in a blog-like format on each of the chapters in Origin of Species
- Darwin’s evolution revolution: OU essay by Paul Underhill
- Darwin interactive guide: Guardian
- Darwin 200: Natural History Museum
- Tree of Life animation
- Darwin Online: complete works
- The Darwin Correspondence Project
- Down House: the home of Charles Darwin (English Heritage)
- Darwin’s Shrewsbury
- We are family: Two books that enhance our understanding of Darwin’s significance impress Gillian Beer
Laugh Now, But One Day We'll Be In Charge (Banksy)