The "Genius" of Charles Darwin?
Last month (July 1 to be precise) saw the 150th anniversary of the first public announcement of what Richard Dawkins has called "...the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind." He was of course referring to the theory of natural selection, the primary mechanism driving the evolution of life on our planet; an idea actually discovered independently by two minds, not just one. Whilst the owner of one of these brains, Charles Darwin, is rather well known, the possessor of the other, Alfred Russel Wallace, is not exactly the household name he once was. So who was Wallace and how did he come to be the co-discoverer of what is probably the most revered (and reviled) idea in human history? (emphasis added)
What? "The most momentous idea ever to occur to the human mind"? The idea that fitter organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce than less-fit organisms? That sounds like a pretty mickey-mouse idea to me. It certainly does not compare with the many strokes of genius that I have seen in science, engineering, and mathematics. Nor is natural selection anywhere near being "the most revered (and reviled) idea in human history," though it is pretty far up the lists of revered and reviled ideas.
A NY Times article says that Darwin and Wallace were not even the first to discover the ideas of natural selection and evolution:
He [Darwin] wasn’t, after all, the first person to suggest that evolution happens. For example, his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, speculated about it towards the end of the 18th century; at the beginning of the 19th, the great French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck made a strong case for it. Lamarck, however, failed to be generally persuasive because he didn’t have a plausible mechanism — he could see that evolution takes place, but he didn’t know how. That had to wait until the discovery of natural selection.
Natural selection is what we normally think of as Darwin’s big idea. Yet he wasn’t the first to discover that, either. At least two others — a doctor called William Wells, and a writer called Patrick Matthew — discovered it years before Darwin did. Wells described it (admittedly briefly) in 1818, when Darwin was just 9; Matthew did so in 1831, the year that Darwin set off on board HMS Beagle for what became a five-year voyage around the world.
On pages 1 and 2 of "Programme 1", Dawkins makes it quite clear that he has an ax to grind, the promotion of atheism:
In this powerful three-part polemical series, Dawkins explains who Charles Darwin was, how he developed his theory, what it is, and why it matters. He reveals how Darwin changed forever the way we see ourselves, the world and our place in it, and hopes to convince us that "evolution is a fact, backed by undeniable evidence".
According to recent polls four out of 10 British people still believe in God as the creator of the universe and everything in it. As a scientist, and Britain's best-known atheist, Dawkins believes that such people simply don’t know enough about the evidence for Darwin's entirely natural explanation of life on Earth – evolution . . . .
Darwin knew his espousal of evolution would cause outrage, challenging, as it did, the prevailing religious view of the world and our place in it. But, as Dawkins explains, it was really his theory of natural selection that undermined the notion of a benevolent God who designed all creatures great and small. . . .
. . . .Finally Dawkins visits a state of the art laboratory in America where scientists can now compare the genetic code of all living things, finally vindicating Darwin’s theories once and for all. "He showed us that the world is beautiful and inspiring without a God. He revealed to us the glory of life and revealed who we really are and where we've come from".
But back in Britain can Dawkins convince a year 11 science class that evolution is the truth? Fearing that "a few hours in the science lab is no substitute for a lifetime of religious indoctrination" he takes the teenagers to Dorset's Jurassic Coast to examine fossil evidence for themselves. But will this win over this sceptical audience?
I thought that evolution was just supposed to be about science. Also, if this is a public school, what about the separation of church and state? Oops, I forgot -- this is England, where is no separation of church and state.
Finally, there is a page where readers get to pick their science heroes:
The focus of this Channel 4 at Cheltenham website this year is Science Heroes. We've teamed up with The Daily Telegraph to explore this subject further and we'd love you to take a moment to think about – and vote for – your personal hero of science. Or perhaps there’s someone many consider a hero who has a dark side and in your eyes is more of a zero. Einstein – father of relativity or the A bomb? Darwin – clear sighted rationalist or short-sighted reductionist? Who is your hero of science and why? And who do you consider a zero and for what reason?
IMO so many scientists, engineers, and mathematicians have made contributions that are essential to our civilization that it is impossible to pick out any of these people as being more important than most of the others, though many are more prominent than most of the others. For example, just in the narrow field of heat transfer analysis, which is subdivided into convection, radiation, and heat conduction in solids, there are lots of obscure people who have made important contributions. It is only in the analysis of heat conduction in solids that one contributor, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, stands out, but even here, many others have made important contributions, e.g., H.S. Carslaw and J.C. Jaeger, who wrote the definitive book on the mathematical analysis of heat conduction in solids. And engineers, computer scientists, and computer programmers have made important contributions to the computerized analysis of heat transfer.
Some videos from "The Genius of Darwin" series are here.
A related post on this blog: Shameless ballyhoo about Darwin
A Pandas's Thumb article about the series is here.
Labels: Evolution education (new #2)