The widespread interpretation of Darwin’s work is largely driven by the classic picture of evolution from ape to human—a series of linear steps moving towards a goal. But this, the ladder-like progression to perfection, is the pre-Darwinian view of evolution. From Darwin, we actually derive the pattern of a branching tree and the process of evolution by natural selection. So, thank you to Judy Stone for helping us finish up the unfinished business of the Darwinian Revolution.
A lot of what Darwin said is not commonly known and I still don’t know. But maybe if his work was better known then it would have more positive implications for society. There was, and still is, the notion of an idealized “type.” We think of what an apple, a pine tree, a squirrel, a human “should” look like. Darwin recognized the centrality and importance of variation within species, and how many things that may appear different are just part of that diversity and very important, not a defect. However, that did not stop the typological thinking. In fact, this mentality continues to be reinforced in the public mind, recently with the increased prominence of “the gene.” As is often and understandably the case, scientific advances must be watered down and distilled to a level that the public can comprehend. Not only does the science need to be simplified, but it also needs to be attention grabbing. The gene fit the bill but it also helps to put people in boxes. Professor Stone noted how there was one a report of what was referred to as a “schizophrenia gene.” This was a completely uninformed representation by the media that mischaracterized scientific findings just to gain readership. This example of how science can be trivialized to a harmful level is not unique, and the role of special interests in science on tobacco and climate change, for example, are similarly disturbing in other ways. Professor Stone was quick to point out that there is certainly no specific single gene mutation that would designate a person as schizophrenic. Reinforced typological thinking and the misunderstanding of human genetic variation have both contributed to widespread societal issues. Optimistically, Judy Stone hope and suggests that a genomics revolution could help us overcome typological thinking and its negative impacts. We certainly hope that if there was more outreach done by evolutionary scientists then racist ideas could finally be broken.
Switching gears a little bit, there were a few things mentioned during the lecture that I vaguely remember from documentaries before but they still managed to blow my mind (probably for the second time). Humans are a very young species, thought to be roughly 150,000 years old, thus we are not all that diverse of a species. We trace out origins back to fourteen different geographically separated populations. It is fascinating to think that there were other hominids roaming the earth not all that long ago and it’s certainly a science that I would like to read up more on in the future.