The evolution of evolution

As you will no doubt be aware, Saturday was Charles Darwin’s birthday (happy 202nd, Mr Darwin!) and so to celebrate, Becky B held a loosely Darwin-themed party. My own shirt evolved several frills to frighten off predators, which seemed to work, as I am still alive. I even managed to avoid a hangover the next morning, which was impressive given that I’d started Saturday with a stonker of a headache.

Charles Darwin evolved an impressive beard towards the end of his life.

I’m something of a fan of Charles Darwin and, indeed, of evolutionary biology in general. I’m no scientist, it goes without saying if you’re a regular reader of this blog, but I take an interest. Call me an evolution groupie, if you like.

I was actually introduced to the concept at a very young age – I can’t have been much older than six or seven when I came across an ape-like man in a case in the Natural History Museum. How Wayne Rooney got in there in the first place, I shall never know, but next along was a case with a model of homo erectus therein. I expressed bemusement to the Ma, who explained that, in fact, people thousands of years ago looked like apes and, further back, actually were. This didn’t seem too ridiculous to me – if every generation looks different from the last one, well, what was so strange about the concept that we might have been apes a long time ago? After all, an ape sort of looks like a human if you squint.

[PARENTHESIS: The word “orangutan” is a Malay term meaning “man of the forest.” Which suggests that the people of Malaysia also saw the resemblance. Despite making such excellent librarians, orangutans are critically endangered and may be extinct in the wild by 2015.]

So anyway, I never found evolution to be a weird idea. Okay, it conflicted with the Bible on a lot of points, but I had the kind of nonconformist view of Christianity that was fairly typical of a British six-year-old (for instance, I thought the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all being the same person was some sort of misprint).

Actually, Charles Darwin’s own religious background is something of a curiosity in terms of how very orthodox it was. Creationists tend to view him as a kind of Antichrist who came up with his theories purely to make Baby Jesus cry, but in his early years he seriously considered becoming a vicar in the Church of England. Unusually in his family, he was entirely C of E in his views, despite his father and grandfather being freethinkers and his wider family being largely nonconformist. Even at the end of his life, he never identified as atheist, preferring to describe himself as agnostic – although some accounts suggest that he didn’t see any real difference between the two, except that people who called themselves atheists tended to be kind of jerky. A quick tour of any Internet bulletin board on the subject of religion will show that he wasn’t entirely wrong there.

There’s nothing particularly strange about the idea of someone taking an interest both in holy matters and in biology (although Kent Hovind can still piss right off). Bear in mind that your average Victorian clergyman was an educated, middle-class fellow with a decent income and not much to do during the week. If they were in a country parish, studying nature was an agreeable way to pass the time.

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Gilbert White’s house if you should find yourself near Selborne. White was an 18th century curate and also a kind of proto-ecologist, believing in the importance of studying wildlife in its natural habitat. This led him to discover that, among other things, birds migrate as opposed to, e.g. hiding underwater in the winter (a serious theory at the time).

Or if you’re looking for another vicar who paved the way for modern biology, how about the Very Reverend William Buckland? Perhaps the first British paleontologist, he disputed the suggestion that modern rock formations had been created by Noah’s flood and in 1824 discovered the fossil bones that he would name “Megalosaurus” – this was the earliest identification of dinosaurs. He also reputedly ate the mummified heart of Louis XIV. Nothing to do with religion vs. science, I just thought it was an interesting fact.

Yet another irony, considering the question of religion vs. evolution, is the fact that although Darwin is perhaps the most important name in modern biology, there was one significant place in the 19th century where his name was mud – the Natural History Museum. More specifically, in the office of the Museum’s effective founder, Richard Owen. Now, I don’t want to dis Owen for his work as a biologist, and there’s no doubt that without his diligent work (and friends in high places), the nation’s natural history collections would have remained a mere collection of trinkets and curios overseen by erratic curators in a wing of the British Museum. But he refused to believe in the concept of evolution by natural selection, firmly coming down on the side of creationism. It’s said that the reason the Natural History Museum’s facade depicts only living species on the west wing and only extinct ones on the east was because Owen refused to even passively acknowledge that they might be linked. This also goes some way to explaining why Darwin’s statue is in the tea room – it was a late addition.

Although in the 1860s Owen’s views were those of an intelligent if conservative scientist, within a few decades they would become less and less credible and a hundred years later would have been abandoned by all except fundies and cranks. These days, the museum even has a research centre named after Darwin.

For all the likes of Richard Dawkins might complain about a rising tendency towards fundamentalism and the rejection of evolution, I don’t think there’s that great a risk in this country. Britain is an essentially secular nation – the Archbishop of Canterbury himself admits to the truth of evolution (so does the Pope, by the way). There might be Bible-bashers ranting about how Darwin burns in hell even as we speak, and there might be scientists being patronising and rude to religious folk, but for the majority of the nation, I don’t think we really give a damn.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The evolution of evolution

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The evolution of evolution | London Particulars -- Topsy.com

  2. Jim Birch

    If you’re an evolution groupie and haven’t read Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind you should. I found it disabused me of a whole lot of notions about what was going on around me, and in me. I think you’ll love it.

    For a taster:

    Geoffrey Miller: Sexual selection is basically the realisation that evolution proceeds by reproductive success not principally by survival of the fittest. It’s about getting copies of your genes into the next generation and for species that reproduce sexually that means you’ve got to find a sexual partner willing to merge their genes with yours to produce offspring who are this wonderful hybrid. And in most species that means mate choice, that means you have to appeal to the nervous system of the opposite sex and the nervous system of the opposite sex, as Darwin realised, becomes a very powerful evolutionary force in its own right. It can shape species in all sorts of bizarre and novel and creative directions, it can create ornaments—like the peacock’s train or the mandrel’s bright red and blue nose, or, I’ve argued, the human brain—that are very hard to explain in terms of survival payoffs.

    Natasha Mitchell: You think the brain itself isn’t an organ that drives our survival?

    Geoffrey Miller: I think the human brain is in large part a sexual ornament in both men and women. Certainly many parts of it have been used in hunter/gatherer societies like our ancestors lived in for hunting and gathering and avoiding predators and raising children. But an awful lot of the capacities we have such as language, a sense of humour, a capacity for producing art and music, to me are only explicable as ways of attracting and keeping sexual partners.

    from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/allinthemind/stories/2009/2489012.htm

    Regards

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