Darwin, Oversimplified

ChuckDCharles Darwin recognized early on the potential for people to oversimplify his writing. In particular, he was adamant that not everything in evolution was the result of adaptation by natural selection, though he worried that others would caricature his work in that way. In other words, Darwin was not as Darwinian as he is sometimes portrayed. The following passage comes from the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species (1872: 421):



“I have now recapitulated the facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have been modified, during a long course of descent. This has been effected chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favourable variations; aided in an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of parts; and in an unimportant manner, that is in relation to adaptive structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external conditions, and by variations which seem to us in our ignorance to arise spontaneously. It appears that I formerly underrated the frequency and value of these latter forms of variation, as leading to permanent modifications of structure independently of natural selection. But as my conclusions have lately been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work, and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position—namely, at the close of the Introduction—the following words: “I am convinced that natural selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification.” This has been of no avail. Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure.”

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A Darwin Day Dose of Inspiration

Today is Charles Darwin Day, in honor of the person whose insights on evolution helped us make sense of the biological world. Evolution remains the backbone of biology, 200+ years after Darwin’s birth. In addition to evolution being a scientifically robust theory, many also find it to be an inspirational idea. At the end of  “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin wrote what is one of the most cited passages in science:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


It is a wonderful world, and Darwin’s ideas help make nature’s diversity comprehensible to us. Like many others, I definitely have found inspiration in his ideas, which I’ve tried to put into words in various posts on this site (below are a few examples). Happy Darwin Day, everyone.

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A Reverence for Life

In re-reading a few books on evolution, it occurred to me that there is a common thread running through many of them, which is the reverence that the authors hold for life itself. Unfortunately, there exists an idea out there that to explain something in nature is equivalent to “explaining it away.” The fear is that this may deflate a person’s sense of wonder. But this is far from the truth. For example, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher commented that her career studying the biology of love (by definition, one of the most romanticized topics possible) has done nothing to diminish her appreciation of it. The same applies for those who study other aspects of science, including evolution.

Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, has written that for many laypeople the notion that evolution is an unguided, mechanistic process implies that “life has no meaning.” However, contrast that view with how many scientists write about nature. The sense of awe and reverence that they exude is palpable.

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Us, Them, & Non-zero Sumness

I love baseball, having played from Little League through high school. The game taught me many lessons about athletics, but also about life. As a New Englander, I grew up a Red Sox fan, which was sometimes painful (the infamous Bill Buckner game of the 1986 World Series fell on my 12th birthday). However, the 2004 championship was pure elation, and made up for everything. After the Red Sox came back from a 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS (the semi-finals, for you non-baseball fans), my father, brother, uncles, cousins, and I took photos in front of the television, as if we were documenting history. I even made sure my infant son was in the photos, to prove to him when he got older that he was there. Ridiculous, right?

Game 5, 2004 ALCS (gothamist.com)

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