Professor Judy Stone, a Biology professor at Colby College discussed “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution”. She highlighted “the evolution” of thought, well before Darwin entered the scene. Notably, it was intriguing as to how much the idea of evolution has changed, and even when Darwin postulated his theory, it was misinterpreted and took many years before its acceptance in the sciences. However, as Stone briefly discussed, this revolution to understanding Darwin is unfinished; but what do we do with this information and what does it imply?
As Stone noted, much of our understanding today is misrepresentative of Darwin’s true reasonings. Individuals are plagued with the stereotypical ape to human image, which misrepresents evolution as a moving, ladder-like process with an end goal. These even extend to Intro. to Biology courses across some colleges and high schools, further digging in this skewed image. What does this mean though? Such a misunderstanding is important; it shows that it is acceptable to misinterpret conclusions, and allow a false story to develop. This is problematic, and quite common, in all domains in life. Often the media portrays, and draws false conclusions, from all forms of people: Politicians, celebrities, newscasters. Moreover, academics may unintentionally misinterpret past, or new, research, and much like the story of evolution, create a new one that is far from indicative of the truth. This is especially rampant today, given the mass exchange of information across many domains.
However, what do we do with this seemingly common problem? Call a revolution to truly grasp the point being made before synthesizing or altering it? Perhaps not, but it does offer a space for individuals, like Stone, who seek to correct the falsely told narrative. Within this process, we might actually gain more; such misrepresentations motivate passionate people to re-examine the original source in depth, and strive to correct whatever misconstrued story has been told. Albeit the truth may never overpower the strong misinterpretations, like the iconic ape to human image, it will continue to foster discussion and push people to learn more about whatever process they deem misled.
Charles Darwin’s contributions to evolution and the life sciences have been the subject of more than one talk in this revolutions themed course. It is without doubt that his work was revolutionary and changed the course of science and society. However, the legacy of Darwin and evolution has not been completely positive. Beliefs around evolution have become arguments for typological thinking and beliefs about race supremacy. This is definitely not the intention of scientists, but their work has been altered to become evidence for these ways of thinking. These misconceptions about evolution include beliefs about variations, the goal of evolution, and typological thinking.
Evolution occurs when variations in a species are better suited for survival and therefore stay alive, becoming the dominant variation in the species. This is the basis of natural selection and is how species are able to evolve and change over time. While variations are vital for evolution, they can be looked at as imperfections. We as a society see differences as a negative thing. They are considered deformities or “weird.” This is a comment on how the society we live in is exclusive and reluctant to change. If we remember that without these differences, humans would not exist, then maybe people would be more accepting and inclusive.
Another important point Professor Judy Stone made was that evolution is not moving towards a goal. Rather, evolution just happens; it is a way to adapt to the current conditions. Like living creatures, the Earth is also evolving. We have changed with our planet to become properly adapted for life on it. If we think of evolution as moving towards a goal, then we assume that it will one day end. However, as long as there is life, there will be evolution. The thought that evolution has a goal also suggests that perhaps there is a species that is better, or more perfect, than another. This type of thinking is dangerous, because it begins to exclude members and suggest they are less than the others.
One thing that was made clear in this lecture was that typological thinking in evolution can be toxic for human interactions. This typological thinking helps to reinforce racial boundaries. Race is a social construct; it is something humans have made up and has no scientific basis. Unfortunately, assumptions about evolution have contributed to phenomena of Social Darwinism, which was widespread in the mid-1900s. Social Darwinism applied the concepts of evolution to humans and our society. Essentially, it was an attempt to provide a scientific basis for racism. While Social Darwinism is not really prevalent today, some of its ideas still linger. These manifest into the problems with the public’s perception of evolution. After listening to Professor Stone’s lecture, I think biologists have potential to be social activists. It is possible to change the public’s perceptions of evolution for the better. With a little bit of education, binary views about evolution can change to benefit society and make it a more inclusive place.
Professor Stone’s lecture began by reframing the iconic image of evolution: the walking man. This image represents a false sense of evolution in that it suggests that the process of evolution is a ladder, that it has a goal and thus and end, and it reinforces the typological thinking pattern that one species can be represented with a perfect type. In reality, evolution is a branching process where do species diverge from a common ancestor, it is not a ladder-like line where one species develops completely into another in one step working towards an idealized form. Darwin’s idea of branching and natural selection makes it possible to relate different species by exploring their common ancestors–a theory that resulted in a massive paradigm shift. Darwin’s ideas also contrasted Plato’s philosophy on forms, which was widely accepted at the time. The application of Plato’s theory in evolution suggests that there is an ideal essence which development works to achieve, and thus evolution has an end. In this realm of thought, each species would also have an ideal form. Darwin overthrew these theories by demonstrating variation within species. He showed that this interspecies variation actually drives evolutionary processes since different combinations of traits contribute to different levels of fitness. When a specific combination leads to increased fitness, it becomes more prevalent in a population throughout time. If this population is isolated it can lead to speciation.
The synthesis of genetics with evolutionary biology lead to massive paradigm shifts in scientific thought and culture. When the study of phenotypes is combined with patterns of inheritance the source of certain traits can be extracted. The synthesis of genetic and biology has lead scientists to discover the origin of the human species, from 14 populations in Africa, and see how this species spread throughout the world. The most pertinent discovery that stemmed from the unification of evolutionary biology and genetics was the realization that there is no biological reality to race. This discovery not only lead to shifts in medicine, but also caused some controversy in society. Before this discovery typological thinkers had developed different medicines for people of different “races.” These medicines were not based on individuals, but rather trends of efficacy within their “races.” Now that genetic information is accessible scientists can see that there is no “race” for which a certain medicine works best, but that it depends on the genome of each individual. There are trends in diseases that groups of people may acquire based on their environments; however, this does not mean that only certain types of people are susceptible to these diseases.
The discovery of the absence of race also contributed to a paradigm shift throughout society. Before this realization, categories for types of people were established based on their phenotypes. The leading classes of each society used these categories to arrange the social hierarchy, which only further socially segregated groups of people and contributed to racism. In reality phenotypic variation lies on a continuum, thus it is impossible to assign a race to every human since there are infinite combinations of these phenotypes. The synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology also lead to the realization that phenotypes do not always rely on specific genes, there are many complex causes. Professor Stone referenced the spurious results of twin studies which assumed that two individuals with identical genomes would have the same phenotypes for everything. The results from these studies are inconclusive since they fail to realize that environmental factors contribute to phenotypes.
Professor Browne introduced the idea of the unification of genetics and evolutionary biology several weeks ago. The study of genetics was considered revolutionary when it was first introduced, and Darwin’s theories on evolution and natural selection caused massive paradigm shifts within the scientific community and the world at large. Professor Stone’s lecture explained how the unification of two revolutionary branches of science lead to massive shifts in scientific thought and the construct of society.