Monday, February 12, 2007

"Just a closer walk with thee..."

Happy Birthday today to Charles Darwin. Had he lived this long, Mr. Darwin would be 198 years old today. Although not actually the first to sneak up on the concept of species evolution (Alfred Russell Wallace should share in the distinction), Darwin's research was more progressed and he rightly deserves the larger share of credit.

Perhaps the least understood aspect of Darwin's theory is the idea of natural selection. An extremely slow process, fitness for a particular ecological niche relies on the happenstance of genetic mutation combined with sustaining that mutation over enormous lengths of time until it proves more survivable than other traits. If you're interested in understanding what all the fuss is about, allow me to recommend The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins. Exhaustive without being exhausting, a very lucid description of the theory and its wonder.

If you're less inclined toward theory and more interested in stories and practical reality (e.g., how humans are freezing the natural process and creating a sterile world of very few species), I can wholeheartedly recommend Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen. Really beautifully written, this book addresses some of the concrete consequences of human settlement of the planet. Without even really touching on climate change. An excellent book altogether.

Speaking of climate change, it should be noted that Darwin, when he set out aboard the Beagle was not seeking to prove the theory of evolution. At the time of the voyage, Darwin was a firm Christian, convinced that the wondrous complexity of nature was proof of the existence of God. ("Consider the wonder of the eye...") He could not ignore what science showed him, however, and came to regard Christian dogma concerning the creation of the world as false.

This kind of revelation has been duplicated in the climate change field. A friend of mine, who has had the privilege of studying with climatologists and field biologists in Alaska, recalled for me that many of the people he met in the arctic had come fully intending to disprove the theory of Global Warming--some of them sent specifically to do so. The facts, however, were irrefutable.

When Darwin published his manuscript, he knew he'd be tarred as an apostate, an atheist. But he couldn't ignore what nature was telling him.
WHEN on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers. ...I hope that I may be excused for entering on these personal details, as I give them to show that I have not been hasty in coming to a decision.

C.R. Darwin

UPDATE 2-14-07: A tip from Crum in the comments to read The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin's first-hand account of that journey. See the comments for more details. Thanks!


deadissue said...

Reading about Darwin's home life is something I enjoyed a little while back. I believe it was in the NYTimes book review on two volumes of the same titles chosen out of Darwin's books, by rival scientists...and you're right on the money with his Beagle adventures having taken place without the kind of prejudice he'd naturally be accused of by creationists.

The comparison with heavies going up to Alaska was excellent. I'm going to have that analogy bouncing around in my head for a long time I imagine. Most likely it'll be retold once my boys are old enough to understand the point.

Darwin was fortunate, but he used his good fortune for the sake of us all. His work is not only solid, but it is readable. I found Stephen Hawking to be readable as well, in spite of what some may say about A Brief Moment in Time...Darwin even more so.

Something I'm going to write about soon is how the creationists take a single verse out of Job to mean that dinosaurs are in the bible. More details to come...I've got to get back to figuring out how to write this SQL query for school...but I've been rereading the bunch of pages before and after and I think it's talking about a dragon, where the chapter before is definitely referring to a whale as it actually uses the word leviathan. This word used is 'bohemith'(sic) - - - and it spits fire.

The text I have is King James...too many details I imagine at this point, but launching campaigns to call these people out on what they're teaching to kids is important to me for some reason.

I think the connection is how Darwin's work is so easy to read and understand, whereas the words these nuts are taking literally are in riddle form. Mind boggling to me how someone could discard one and embrace the other so easily.

It's not faith in God as I see it...but rather faith in oneself to be right about everything without actually checking it out for themselves.

Crum said...

I'll add that reading Darwin's original words is something not to be missed. Origin is an obvious choice but to really "see" what Darwin saw check out Voyage of the Beagle. This is Darwin's daily journal of his 5 year trip around the world.

If you read it like you are from 2007 you will become confused about why he goes into such detail about every little issue. If you remember that the mid 1800s no one had ever watched movies about the Galapagos or even seen pictures of the Beagle for that matter, you will understand why people of the day read it like an adventure book.

As you begin to read and let yourself imagine a different time you will quickly begin to apprecite Darwin's descriptive skills. He puts the reader exactly where he is and the reader can nearly experience the smells and the colors and the textures of everything that Darwin sees. English teachers often talk of "showing not telling" in writing. Voyage of the Beagle is a paragon of the former.

Jim said...

The interplay between religion and science is fascinating. Especially if you take a long view of it. At one time, all we had was religion and philosophy. Even if you didn't accept what the Koran, the Bible or the Vedas had to say (or any of the numerous religious texts), your understanding of the world would have been based on a natural philosophy that reasoned out some kind of explanation for the order or disorder of the world.

The more we came to know about our planet and the universe through observation and testable theory (science, in other words) the more ground religion had to cede.

To me, we are fast approaching the moment when all religion has to offer is its moral force. This is no small thing, but does leave religion pretty much out of the explanation racket.

I'd love to entice my friend, a high school biology teacher and a smart man to make a few "guest notes" about his time in Alaska. He was at the Toolik Lake Field Station, under a program that pairs teachers with researchers for a summer of field research.

deadissue said...

I'm caught with an itch every once in a while where I'm pouring over the general it's in response to some wacky interpretation the evangelicals are using from the old testament to teach kids that noah had pet dinosaurs or something like that.

The belief in have to let go of the power to question certain things, and depending on the denomination, sometimes it's the power to question anything.

It's depressing for me to think about sometimes, how there are literally millions of kids growing up, going to school...this country's future, and they're indoctrinated to not believe in science, to reject Darwin...the Saulk (sic? polio vaccine) of the next generation is being caught in the net somewhere in Kansas, and the world suffers.