Today I got to go to the Charles Darwin Bicentennial Colloquium and learned some really cool things about the father of evolution.
Karen, Charlie, and Suzanne spoke about some of the legacies of Darwin and his theories.
There have also been some interesting articles about the 200th anniversary of his birth bouncing around museum news listserves.
I also really liked the section of the NY Times where scientists went over some of their favorite passages from the Origin of Species. I was especially drawn to the section about the eye and how Darwin was forced to prove that such a miraculous organ could be the product of millions of years of evolution. Since we dissect cows’ eyes every day at the museum, I was thinking that some of this stuff night be useful to throw in there.
To evolve an eye, start with a “nerve merely coated with pigment” that will respond to light. Darwin also introduces the possibility that “an organ originally constructed for one purpose … may be converted into one for a wholly different purpose”. To evolve a lung, start with an air sac used for flotation. 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. —Richard E. Lenski, Michigan State University
and my favorite…
Darwin conducted the scientific rebuttal superbly, demonstrating the stages by which an eye could evolve. But undermining marvels of perfection was more of a PR task – which, as Darwin confessed, gave him “a cold shudder”. And his attack on “perfection” was indeed lackluster: “The correction for the aberration of light is said, on high authority, not to be perfect even in that most perfect organ, the eye” (p. 202).
But … Enter a deus ex machina, just in time for The Origin’s sixth and final edition in 1872: Helmholtz, the distinguished physiologist and physicist, renowned expert on the eye, “whose judgment no one will dispute”. Darwin gratefully quotes at length his “remarkable words” on the “inexactness and imperfection in the optical machine and in the image on the retina.” But here instead is Darwin’s less staid account from the second edition of Descent of Man: “we know what Helmholtz, the highest authority in Europe on the subject, has said about the human eye; that if an optician had sold him an instrument so carelessly made, he would have thought himself fully justified in returning it.” Indignant consumer returns shoddy goods to Grand Optic Designer … And Darwin is transformed from distraught to triumphant. —Helena Cronin, Co-Director, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science, London School of Economics
It’s neat to think that not only did Darwin have to come up with the theory but also explain it in a way that was clear and sensible to the lay-readers of the document. And I think that those who actually read and study biology will agree that he did that job admirably. Check out the other close readings of the Origin of Species here… On Darwin’s Origin of Species
So enjoy his 200th birthday tomorrow even though that 66% of Americans still don’t believe in evolution.
I guess that just means all of his fellow Explainers still have some work to do!