All hail the founding father

Charles Darwin was a great thinker, philosopher and naturalist who spent 20 years observing, tracking and analyzing the natural world. His collected data resulted in what is probably the most influential book in all of biology: his abstract about organismal evolution, “On The Origin Of Species”.*

Today the theory of evolution by natural selection is the cornerstone of biology. The ideas in this volume were controversial at the time and have, in some circles, returned to controversy even today.  But as the influential geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin.  To mark this occasion, the New York Times has made the entire volume available online and annotated by some of the greatest modern biologists, who have selected and commented on their favorite passages.

One particularly good example comes from Chapter IV, titled “Difficulties on Theory.” Darwin knew that his theory would be met with skepticism and even ridicule. As evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski at Michigan State points out, Darwin himself confesses to the fact that an organ as complex as the vertebrate eye is difficult to fathom in light of the gradual changes that occur under natural selection.  Current anti-evolution groups, such as proponents of Intelligent Design, purport that the eye is too complex to have evolved piecemeal. Says Lenski:

This passage, if read in isolation, seems to concede Darwin’s inability to explain the most wonderfully complex features that we encounter in biology, such as our own eyes. But in the pages that follow his rhetorical confession, he presents lucid evidence that “organs of extreme perfection and complication” arose through “numerous gradations” with “each grade being useful to its possessor”. To evolve an eye, start with a “nerve merely coated with pigment” that will respond to light. … In essence, Darwin sets himself the seemingly impossible challenge of leaping across a large pond, but then shows it’s really not too difficult when there are stepping stones along the way.

The entire commentary on the Origin can be read here. See also an excellent associated NYT article on Darwin’s continued influence.

*Darwin hurriedly published this 500-page document because he discovered that the naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace had independently thought up the idea of natural selection, and he didn’t want his life’s work to be scooped.

Photo credit: The New York Times

Author: Christine Buckley

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