The lecture by Judy Stone titled “The Unfinished Business of the Darwinian Revolution” was an eye-opening experience for me; for it made me realise that revolutions are underway all around me. Years down the line, our successors will credit this present time as an extremely important time in mankind’s history, not realising that revolutions are happening in their time too.
Judy Stone talked about one of those revolutions, one which had not reached its final evolutionary stage yet. The spark kindled by Charles Darwin had yet to enlighten the human mind wholly. The theories proposed by Darwin are now seldom unheard of around the world, yet this revolution faces a roadblock which needs to be dealt with for the revolution to remain relevant. This roadblock I talk about is the incomplete interpretation of evolution throughout the globe. The most profound example can be found in the iconic image of evolution itself, which shows the different stages of man during different times. This reinforces false typological thinking, considering Darwin implied evolution to be a branching process rather than ladder like. Moreover, evolution is never meant to be depicted as moving towards a goal, as the image does. Instead, evolution results from the process of natural selection, where all sorts of distinct variations within species function as the key ingredients for natural selection.
This brings me to my next point, that being our ability to ignore those variations within humans and place different people within different categories, never acknowledging the continuous genetic variations within our species. This has been enforced within the public mind most commonly through the ‘gene’ which has led people to use baseless assumptions to reach false conclusions, which can have trivial, irresponsible and even criminal impacts. One of those instances occurred where differentiating people through races led to creation of race-specific medicines. This is clear ill-usage of principles of evolutionary biology where medicinal growth is seriously being impacted.
Evolutionary biology has already impacted our lives in various ways, and shall continue to do so, provided we proceed in the right direction in the next step of this unfinished revolution. It seems that exploration of genomes and deep further research in personalised medicine seems the right way forward, but who knows, if we are evolving, who is to say that revolutions aren’t?
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.
Janet Browne began the discussion by noting that Darwin himself foresaw the rise of the revolution that would stem from his discoveries. He “dimly [foresaw] a revolution in natural history” that would result from the scientific community’s and public’s acceptance of his work. Darwin did not, however, understand the shift that his discoveries would bring not only in science, but also in economics, political theory, business theory, and even culture.
Today, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or descent with modification, has support of the scientific community and even the Catholic Church. This theory has played a key role in the direction of scientific research since its amalgamation with genetics. The idea of the “survival of the fittest” and concepts of natural selection have been applied to economic, political, and business theory, which dictate the market and financial status of the many nations. Darwin has also become an icon of classic scientific discovery; towns, mountains, buildings, cafés, and even twitter handles have been named or created in his honor. Darwin’s wife and children worked to establish the legacy of Darwin that we know today. Darwin’s funeral reflects his importance to Britain. Despite being an agnostic scientist, he was buried among the heroes and religious icon of Britain in Westminster Abbey–this established his status as a kind of secular saint. In 1885 a magnificent statue of Darwin was erected and moved into the Natural History Museum of London, where it presided over a cathedral-like room and an altar-like platform. Fifty years after Darwin’s death one of his descendants organized a commemoration event with a famous geneticist to promote Darwinian science as the field of genetics began to gain popularity. In 1950 UChicago held a celebration of Darwin with a panel of the world’s brightest biological scientists. Today, ideas of Darwinism persist in science, economics, political, business and culture.
Darwin precipitated the idea of natural selection, or descent with modification, when reading an economics book. He delayed publishing this concept for years out of fear of how society might react. When he finally did publish, the scientific community did not immediately accept his work; in fact, many people vehemently rejected the notion that humans were related to apes. In 1925 a teacher was prosecuted for having a textbook that mentioned the concept of evolution–this case, the Scopes trial, represents the resistance to natural selection that remained many decades after the theory had been accepted, and even celebrated by the scientific community. Some may argue that the Darwinian Revolution wasn’t really “Darwinian.” During the period of Darwin’s greatest discoveries other scientists were exploring similar ideas. Some argue that if Darwin and had existed another person would have made the same discoveries and drawn the same conclusions–in other words, Darwin was not unique; he was just the first to make an inevitable discovery. People may also argue that the introduction of natural selection and evolution did not really cause a revolution. Darwin’s ideas were not really globally accepted until the 1940’s. The world’s most famous revolutions did not occur overnight; many of them took years or even decades, so to say that Darwin’s ideas took too long to catch on ignores the timeframe about great revolutions. His ideas also resulted in the paradigm shift from God as the creator of man to descent with modification. This shift directs modern scientific research.