Reflections on Darwinian Science – Part I

Reflections on Darwinian Science – Part I

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The history of science is wrought with a great many milestones, but some are more significant turning points than others. The Copernican dismissal of the long-held geocentric view of the universe was only one of those revolutionary upheavals. The classification of celestial bodies into stars and planets which probably began in ancient Babylonia, and the introduction of the concept of the zero along with the associated decimal system of numeration which originated in India, were other direction-altering shifts of significance that had occurred before in our scientific quest.

Newton’s gravitation and Lavoisier’s classification of chemical elements were major jolts to previous worldviews also, but they did not have such a universal human impact as the Darwinian formulation of how biological species arose and evolved. Though the germinal idea of evolution had been present in various modes in former times, including in some ancient cultures, Darwin’s formulation had many new features. It was based on a thorough and systematic study of the biological world, and most importantly, had unforeseen impact on our cultural and religious worldviews.

Not surprisingly, the literature relating to Darwin’s work has been considerable. Countless articles and volumes have been written about Darwin’s theory. Many have argued for the theory and many against it. Many of the books are within readable reach of the average educated person, though quite a few are too technical for general consumption. The number of these works available to the general public far surpasses that of books on the science of Galileo or Newton, Maxwell or Einstein, though the works of these giants have had no less an impact on human culture and civilization. There never was a debate as to whether gravitation or the laws of motion are desirable topics for young minds, never a question of whether electromagnetism should be taught to school kids, though at one time (in Nazi Germany) Einstein was not considered kosher (or perhaps too kosher a) science, and hence debarred.

Science-enthusiasts have celebrated the bicentennial of Galileo, the tercentennial of Newton, the centennial of Maxwell, and the anno mirabilis of Einstein, but by and large these jubilations have been for an elite group of the initiated: the general public can hardly enunciate the principle of inertia, the second law of motion, or the displacement current or vector potential, let alone say why Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect deserved the Nobel Prize. But talk of evolution and all hell and heaven break lose in our imagination, the framework of our moral laws seems to be shaken, and many people feel very uncomfortable being demoted from Imago Dei to fructose simian that got down from tree-tops. Many God-fearing souls feel humiliated by the Darwinian picture.

Given that Darwin’s discovery is a scientific worldview, one might argue that there is no guarantee that it will stay exactly as the master had propounded it. But there is every reason to believe—no matter what Thomas Kuhn said—that Darwin is here to stay in one form or another, with or without the ennobling and elevating visions of ancient poetry.

This year (2009) marked the 200th birth year of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of what some regard as his man-minimizing masterpiece: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). The title was abbreviated to simply On the Origin of Species in a later (sixth) edition.

The concept of evolution has a long history, and has evolved much since Darwin’s path-breaking work. This series will reflect on various aspects of Evolution: its roots, trunk, and branches.