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February 12, 2019

Why Charles Darwin matters

Filed under: darwin,Evolution,science — Razib Khan @ 2:11 am

Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12th, 1809. He was the son of a prosperous and prominent lineage. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a physician and public intellectual. Like his more famous grandson, the elder Darwin was a natural philosopher who propounded theories of evolution. On his mother’s side, Charles Darwin was the grandson of the manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood. If Erasmus Darwin reflected the intellectual currents of England during the late 18th century, Wedgewood illustrated the rise of the merchant class with the industrialization of Britain.

Growing up in comfortable circumstances, Charles Darwin had many opportunities to succeed, or fail. His university career was checkered at best. At one point it seemed likely that he would become a clergyman in the Church of England, satisfying his interest in the natural world as an avocation.

Life had different plans for him. He famously went on a voyage around the world, and his observations of the geology, flora, and fauna, fed into his later theories. But the truth is that the immediate consequence of Darwin’s travels was a book, The Voyage of the Beagle, which made him something of a minor celebrity in Victorian England. Even without The Voyage of the Beagle his name would likely have been noted in the pedigree of the prominent Darwin-Wedgewood family.

If Charles Darwin had never published The Origin of Species, history would have remembered him, albeit as a minor figure of the 19th century.

But Darwin did publish The Origin of Species. And after this, he published other books, most famously The Descent of Man. But Charles Darwin’s fame rests primarily on a single book published in 1859, whose full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Charles Darwin the man led a fascinating and full life. His lineage was colorful, his times were exciting, while his marriage was loving and passionate. Charles Darwin had enough texture and tension within his life that feature films can easily revolve around him as a character. He was a man in full.

But we are talking about Charles Darwin today because of the science which he assembled and presented within The Origin of Species. Though evolutionary ideas had been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, it was Charles Darwin who brought the idea to life through a plausible, compelling, and ubiquitous dynamic and underlying mechanism in the form of adaptation through natural selection. There were earlier evolutionary thinkers in the 19th century, but the reason that we use the term “Darwinism” interchangeably with evolutionary biology is that the model presented in The Origin of Species laid the foundation for the whole scientific discipline.

Science is not a single idea. It is not a hunch. It is the assembling of observations, the construction of theory, and the generation of predictions. With Alfred Wallace, Charles Darwin presented to his contemporaries the hypothesis that natural selection was the motor which drove the riotous diversification of form and function around us in the living world.

The development of genetics as field after 1900 revived Darwinian evolutionary biology as the study of the process of natural selection became a core element of the field of evolutionary genetics. Though others had proposed the tree of life and common descent, it was Darwins’ ideas of how that tree diversified which transformed what had been a stale description into a dynamic representation of what we now call evolutionary process.

It is true that despite the fertility of his mind many scientists today within biology do not read Darwin’s original works. But that is because his conjectures and certainties are laced through fields, part, and parcel of the axioms which are taken for granted by working researchers.

Today all biologists implicit stand on Darwin’s shoulders to see further and more clearly.

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Why Charles Darwin matters was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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