On the (actual) Origin of Species

I’m pretty happy with my pokemon fanfic’s name, but I didn’t just pick it because it sounds cool and has some thematic fit. I picked it because Darwin’s book means something very special to me. This isn’t going to be a detailed review of the book’s contents itself, but rather why I think it’s so much more important than most people realize.

161 years ago today, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a book that literally changed the way we humans understood ourselves, and our place in the world around us. It  For those that haven’t read it, haven’t seen Darwin’s thoughts in their original form back when this was the cutting edge of science rather than taken for granted by all but the most ignorant, it may be hard to appreciate just how important this book was. Ironically enough, atheists and agnostics may especially underestimate the importance of it, thinking it simply the root of our understanding of evolution. Most don’t realize that if it hadn’t been written, they may not be skeptics at all.

Because skepticism doesn’t come easy to people, and our brains are pattern-matching machines. Before Darwin, the vast majority of the irreligious were, at the very least, deistic or spiritualists. Great thinkers, rationalists, and philosophers may have recognized the absurdities and contradictions of the theistic religions, but surely, they thought, something supernatural existed. How else to account for the origin of the universe? Or the miracle of life’s variety, including us, in our apparent superiority over the lesser creatures of the world?

Edwin Hubble answered the first, and Charles Darwin the second. They gave us something precious: the ability to conceptualize a world, a universe, a cosmos, as just what it is. A reality that explains itself, to those willing to put in the hard work of studying it, so that even in our immense ignorance, we are still capable of distinguishing the map from the territory.

Even today, as widespread as evolutionary acceptance is, while many religions become more progressive and attempt to integrate it into their worldview, there persists a stumble at the finish line, an insistence of some supernatural intervention on the part of humans, thus setting us intrinsically apart from the rest of naturally evolved life. This is done to preserve our sense of universal importance, our God-granted cosmic purpose, or to preserve specific fundamental aspects of the faith, such as “original sin.” But all it reveals is just how powerful this truth is, that it continues to make otherwise intelligent and accepting people flinch and ignore parts of it, often without even realizing that they’re doing it, or why it matters. Imagine trying to have such a difficult thought, in the world before anyone knew better?

Charles Darwin was one of the most important figures in human history. Like all scientific findings, his discovery would have been made by someone else if he hadn’t (and very nearly was), but he had not just the intelligence to discover the true mechanism of evolution, but also the courage to take what he saw as truth, and put his name on it, and invite the ridicule, scorn, and disbelief that it received. Almost all of modern medicine, our understanding of life’s diversity and origins, and the fundamental unity of our species and connection to the rest of the planet’s life, comes from his discoveries.

For that, I thank him, and I invite you all to as well.

As an addendum, for people who might wonder about Alfred Wallace not being mentioned despite his great contributions, I’ll quote this informative article:

Darwin always put the emphasis on selection acting on individuals whereas Wallace apparently thought selection acted on groups or species. That selection acts on the individual, due to competition between individuals of the same species, is one of the key points in Darwin’s theory. Whether selection acted for “the good of the group” or on individuals was debated for a long time. Now, however, it is generally accepted that Darwin was right and that selection acts primarily on individuals.

Another apparent difference is that Darwin emphasized competition within populations as the driving force for evolution, whereas Wallace put more emphasis on the species meeting the demands of a change in their environment. Wallace also seemingly disagreed with many of the terms Darwin coined. For example Wallace never appreciated the analogy between evolution and artificial selection which was one of Darwin’s key insights and the source of the term Natural Selection. Wallace even scored out natural selection from his copy of On the Origin of Species and wrote ‘survival of the fittest’ in its place.

In later years the two men differed on other points, for example Darwin invoked other processes than natural selection to explain the evolution of particular characteristics. One of Darwin’s other key theories is sexual selection, which he viewed as an incredibly important process. Wallace however thought its effects were negligible and put more emphasis on natural selection. In his book Darwinism Wallace proposed alternative explanations to many of Darwin’s examples of sexual selection. In the 1970s sexual selection received increased attention from biologists after a long period of being largely forgotten. Work since then has shown that Darwin was right; sexual selection is a key factor in the evolution of many traits.

Darwin and Wallace also disagreed on human evolution. For Darwin, all aspects of humans, including the emotions, conscious mind and intelligence could be explained by natural or sexual selection. By the late 1860s Wallace had become a Spiritualist, and perhaps linked to this, began to reject evolutionary explanations of human intelligence and abilities invoking ‘the unseen universe of Spirit’. This, he claimed, had intervened in the normal run of natural selection three times; at the creation of life, the introduction of consciousness, and the generation of man’s mental capacities.

Later in his life Wallace also believed in teleology; the idea that the development of the universe has had a direction and that direction is towards the perfection of man. There are suggestions that Wallace also applied his teleology to evolution. Darwin was clearly a bit perplexed by his former ally’s new views and at one point wrote to Wallace pleading with him not to kill ‘our baby’.

So yeah. In my view, while Wallace formed a similar theory, he was far less accurate in his specifics, and had far less data to prove his assertions. It’s not enough in science to be right but for the wrong reasons, and we should not lightly dismiss the spiritualist and supernatural insistence Wallace held onto when comparing which of the two great scientists was able to find a better approximation of truth.

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