Charles Darwin recently was celebrated upon his 200th birthday, along with Abraham Lincoln.
Born on the same fateful day, two men changed history. The changes Darwin wrought remain more controversial. No where are people more riled up than in the United States, where protests still erupt over “Darwinism.” What is Darwinism?
Some of the dispute arises because people misunderstand what Darwin wrote. Others misinterpret it, using the word Darwinism as a pejorative term, akin to racism, or sexism.
Darwinism has two meanings now, one closer to eugenics, or Social Darwinism, the idea that our actions, or more noble birth, somehow make some of us superior to others, and all of us superior to other life forms. Nothing could be further from Darwinism as Darwin saw it, if one were to imagine just for a moment, that the man ever envisioned adding an “ism” to his name.
The 1859 book was called On the Origin of Species, and the word evolution itself appears no where in the original text. Without knowledge of DNA, or even genetics, Darwin explores what he calls “natural selection.” Who/what is selecting? In nature, the environment selects by favoring those traits that gradually allow an organism to better survive and reproduce.
Another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had the same theory; but it was Darwin who realized natural selection is key to species variation. Thus, Darwin is the one known to have inspired the little feet upon the fish on some bumper-stickers and pins. In recognizing that variation occurs in nature over eons of time, these variations are favored (or not) by climate, geology, predators, disease, and more, Darwin was able to realize that all organisms are related. We living things are miraculously varied, adapted brilliantly, and specialized. The interpretation that we “descended” from monkeys is incorrect.
Genius though he was, the Darwin fish is something the man could probably never envision. Charts used for decades that show fish triumphantly pulling themselves up to dry land, and those wherein a chimp is shown in stages to straighten upright until it assumes the Homo Sapiens forward looking determination stance, are also false. Life forms of fish and fauna, trees, birds, apples and apes are still with us. They have successfully adapted their own variations. The famous Australopithecus, Lucy, and the recently discovered Ardi, a female Ardipithecus, whose remains are four million years old, are separated in time and form by more than a million years. Our specific blend of hominids, Homo Sapiens, has only been around about one million years. There is no missing link, just missing of the mark, in some interpretations of facts.
Biologists seldom used the term survival of the fittest, because it seems to imply that people who are “more fit”, “superior,” can better rule the world. The idea of this led to Social Darwinism, and Eugenics, which in Europe was shaped into concepts and movements that ironically spawned both the Soviet regimes, and the Nazis. Lots of good ideas become corrupted. One might say they evolve or devolve, depending upon how those trying to conquer others, twist them, into distorted ideologies in the environment of the times.
In the nineteenth century, the idea that we are “animals” was shocking. It was viewed as a demotion by many. Religions particularly felt threatened. Defenses went up as if to protect humanity from a crushing blow similarly dealt when Galileo realized, and taught, our earth is not the center of the universe.
Even today, people object to ideas they see contradicted in scriptures. Modern science recognizes and pursues truth, and some cannot wrap their heads around the notion that possibly, a God is big enough to have created many universes filled with many life forms. The idea of “random chaos” is elicited, but there is nothing random, or chaotic, in the over all long term view of true Darwinism. We didn’t just happen. It’s bigger than that.
Darwin concluded, “There is grandeur is this view of life… Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” That, perhaps past all the controversy that was certainly to come, Darwin could see hope for science and humanity to embrace this wonder with dignity and pride, is perhaps where the true revolution occurs, and is being evolved, even now.