Darwin Revisited

BIOLOGY’S GRAMMARIAN: DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA TODAY

This year we celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Here, academics from science and religion discuss what his theories mean today

Janet Smith is lecturer in biosciences, University of Birmingham

There is no doubt that the work of Darwin is still highly relevant to the modern-day scientist. His influence still permeates the way in which we do science today. Nowhere is this influence greater than in contemporary bioscience or in a biomedical research laboratory such as mine.

Darwin’s work is important and still relevant to my work and teaching as a geneticist and developmental biologist. Darwin’s theory of mutability, which we now know acts at the DNA level via gene mutation, and his foresight in listing problems with it, many of which have now been resolved, are essential.

Darwin was not the father of biology, just as Newton was not the father of physics. But like all influential scientists he was flexible of mind, hard-working, insightful and lucky enough to have the resources he needed to generate the data required to support and refine his big idea.

His insightful hypothesis, the “unifying theory” of speciation described in On the Origin of Species, is fundamental to how we understand and interpret scientific data today – not least for the sheer volume and all-encompassing nature of experimental work and data that Darwin produced to support his premise.

His approach, in which hypothesis and real data combined to generate a novel and lasting paradigm shift in our understanding of ourselves and the natural world, is a model for the scientific method and evidence-based research today.

John McCarthy is director of the Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre, University of Manchester

Darwin’s ideas on evolution driven by natural selection represent one of the most important milestones in the history of science. It is easy to forget today, 150 years after their first publication, just how dramatic a change in humanity’s perception of living organisms (including itself) was brought about by these revolutionary ideas.

Indeed, possibly more than any other scientific theory, the concept of what we now call “Darwinian selection” has exerted a pervasive effect on both science and human culture.

Had he been alive today, Darwin would have been fascinated by the progressive elucidation over the past 50 years of many of the molecular principles that underpin evolutionary changes.

He would also have been impressed by the increasing role of methods and concepts from the physical sciences and engineering in revealing how complex interactive networks of molecules in biological systems generate the emergent properties that we recognise as “living”.

But probably he would have been most excited to learn that the knowledge of naturally evolved living systems acquired over the past 150 years now allows us to design and engineer at least sub-cellular synthetic systems that are effectively selected in silico.

By identifying the interplay between physical forces (rather than divine intervention) and biological adaptation, Darwin helped initiate a chain of events that has radically changed our world.

Gavin D’Costa is professor in Catholic theology, University of Bristol

Darwin was misunderstood by many Christians, so much so that the Anglican Church has issued an “apology” to mark Darwin’s bicentenary and the anniversary of On the Origin of Species, rather like the Roman Catholic Church’s apology to Galileo. So what is at stake? Three things.

First, that Christians engage intelligently over scientific debate with the quiet confidence that there cannot be a contradiction regarding the truth of God and the truth of science.

Second, this a priori starting point means that if the latter throws up a well-established finding over hundreds of years, then theology needs to rethink whether it has trespassed over its legitimate boundaries if it finds itself contradicted.

Third, if theology is confident of its truth and there is still a contradiction, science must be subject to rigorous scrutiny, especially its presuppositions and context.

Darwin’s followers have sometimes developed his theses into theories that are in direct opposition to theological claims and this debate remains unresolved.

So let’s celebrate this pioneer, never be afraid of truth and continue this important discussion.

Gerard Loughlin is professor of theology and religion, Durham University

Darwin gave us back a more ancient way of thinking about our place in nature. For example, the Roman poet Ovid had imagined a world in which all things change, in which no forms are stable and everything can become something else.

Darwin endowed this metamorphosis with the regularity of law and mechanism and an almost endless duration: a taming but also an expansion of the mercurial imagination.

But it was Darwin’s misfortune to have encountered a modernised Christianity, one obsessed with the security of the unequivocal and forgetful of a time when its holy scriptures were poetic as well as historical, teaching truly with figures of speech.

Medieval Christians were as disturbed by mutability as anyone today, but they did not think it was impossible.

Indeed, they saw it all around them and honoured it in the transmutation of the sacraments. They hoped that they themselves would be changed in the twinkling of an eye. In this they were more Darwinian than many of their modern counterparts.

Darwin lacked the theological resources to marry providence with contingency, to remind him that God gave as much thought to the sparrow or the dinosaur as He to Himself.

Darwin teaches that we do not transcend nature – faith invokes what does.

Steve Jones is professor of genetics, University College London

Darwin, to me, was the man who invented biology. Before On the Origin of Species there were plenty of excellent scientists out there working on fossils, animal breeding, the insects of remote lands, the behaviour of birds and much more.

None, though, realised that they were all doing the same thing: studying aspects of evolution. The famous book’s “long argument” made that clear (even if the word “evolution” does not appear in it).

We seem to have forgotten just how radical the notion must have seemed when it first appeared. Now, it is common – even commonplace – to see information from distantly related creatures, neurobiology and DNA sequences in the same scientific paper.

So used are the people at the bench to Darwin’s great idea that they sometimes forget how important it is. It’s a bit like a language; everyone uses grammatical rules without realising it and only when learning a new one does the importance of formal rules emerge.

Darwin gave biology a grammar – the theory of evolution. To become an expert in the subject you have to start there first.

Postscript :Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology, University of Sheffield. His most recent book is The Wisdom of Birds (2008).

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