Thursday, February 12, 2009
Darwin's Birthday Breakdown
200 years ago on this very day both Charles Darwin and Abe Lincoln were born. Of course I don't want to discount Mr. Lincoln's achievements, its just that I am a scientist not a historian, and I have more of a connection with the former birthday boy.
When you say "Darwin" people, depending on lots of ridiculous moral and religious factors, either defend or denounce him with a high degree of passion. I think with a little perspective we can all admit that in the early-mid 1900's he was ahead of his time out there measuring finch beak bills on a far away island and trying to speculate how the life on this earth got so amazingly diverse. Its not about if he was right or if Genesis/Bible is right, its about two fairly different ways of thinking about the world. Things are the way they are just because thats what I believe in my heart, or things are the way they are because thats how they've become because of what we can figure out on our own.
I am always so flabbergasted when people Challenge Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection so passionately simply because his work was done almost 200 years ago! Think about it, he couldn't wipe his ass with toilet paper, use a lightbulb, or fly on an airplane, or look up something in a medical journal online, he had to take a ship around the world to make his discoveries on pen and paper. Science has come so far since then, its redefined, tuned, tested, experimented upon and improved the theory of evolution 100 fold since then, the problem is that most normal everyday Americans will never get to the level of education where they can see scientists performing at this level of work or sophistication, or talk to educators/professors about these theoretical intricacies. They will just have a simplified version of "evolution."
Most people just think "Darwin...um...evolution...um...humans didn't come from monkeys...um thats stupid...Darwin was stupid...um me want mountain dew?"
There is a very comprehensive study that surveyed people's attitudes toward evolutionary theory and compared it to their level of education. The graph showed a strong relationship. The lower the level education the higher the negative attitude toward evolution. The higher the education the more acceptance and neutral/positive attitude toward evolution. You don't see people with a 6th grade education walking around defending the random evolution of all living things.
In reality, the theory has come so far that scientists in the rain forests of south america are observing the specific rate at which evolution is actually happening before their eyes. Even 5 years ago in my Graduate Evolutionary Theory Discussion panel we were reading studies about the rates of evolutionary genetic drift of guppie's scale coloring due to population separation by sudden waterfalls in the Amazon river. Selection by predation would favor one color type over another depending on which side of the waterfall the guppies wound up on and in a matter of months the entire population had changed its colors to reflect those with a genetic and phenotypic advantage of hiding from predators while the population in the absence of a predator below the waterfall would change color towards enhanced mating intense colors. Evolution in months!
Furthermore, they can track your Mitochondrial DNA back through your mothers lineage and find exactly how many generations separate you from any living person on earth. And from all their surveying they can only trace all of our DNA back to seven mothers in Africa. Doesn't really sound like the ol' Adam and Eve now does it? (or the good book certainly paints a different description of the two) I think about how frightening it must be for some redneck to have to understand that they actually descended from the very dark skinned relatives they oppress and think are so inferior. It took mankind 40,000 years to change from black to white skin and back again, we really are all related in the end, something I take comfort and fear in.
"Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits. "
Its not "if" evolution is real. It is real, it is happening, right now, whether you accept it or not, you are part of it, you wear lipstick and blush because lips turn red during sex, you wear tight jeans because the butt muscles are the main thrusting muscles of sex, and I think we can all understand male affinity for cleavage in the face of all the nutrition mammary glands can provide to young. Evolution is going on with out your approval, the only problem is that some people seem to think that if they accept that evolution is taking place their spiritual savior will cast them to eternal damnation for believing it (minus a select group of kick ass people that seem to have made peace with both sides which is noble and enlightened). I mean what kind of God would smite you for studying the wonder of the world?
The two are completely separate for me. Separate and the same. The same wonder/appreciation that I get out of seeing and trying to understand nature and how everything fits together and turned out the way it did is probably the same wonder that drives someone to believe/worship that an omniscient being floating in space created this infinitely complex world out of their god-brain in spite of the fundamental evidence to the contrary (although I've never believed in God so I really can't put myself in someone who does' shoes). The more I understand evolution the more I become certain and "faithful" that no creator could or would make this earth that we live on today.
"I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars. " -Darwin
If you are unconvinced and think you might want to see just how far evolution has really come since ol Charly Darwin thought up this blasphemous idea I suggest you check out the books from Richard Dawkins. "The Selfish Gene" "The Blind Watchmaker" and "The Extended Phenotype" to see how far we've come. They are all so amazing and ahead of our time, if you have the cajones to endure the verbage (although its written really nicely).
Also, I always take comfort in knowing that Religion itself may be an evolutionary adaptation of the human race. Conversely we are so awestruck by our own ability to create things that we also must "BELIEVE" that someone created us. Religion ties people together, gives them values, bands groups together for combat and defense of property, religion is the driving force between humans that ultimately decides who is the fittest of all. I love that. I also think that its incredibly sad. Additionally, I love how the texts of religion have themselves evolved leaving only the most favorable and fit gospels to survive the test of time. I love how the gospel of Judas was never put in the canon (yes Judas' account of Jesus was found and it tells things a little differently). So if religion is a product of evolution and is itself evolving isn't that absolutely hilarious to anyone but me?
On top of that, everyone accept the moons orbit around the earth and the planets and stars yet they can not accept something as small as how a zebra got its stripes.
"We can allow satellites planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act. "
So today I celebrate Darwin, not for his imperfect theory that is continually evolving itself, but for how it set in motion an entire train of thought that looks at the world the way it is and uses evidence to attempt to work backward and figure out the pieces so that we can explain the now.
Here are some Charles Darwin Quotes about the plight of man that I think are interesting and also very concerning considering he said them so long ago:
"At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. "
...actually native people worldwide are doing quite well right now...psych we're killing them and its gotta stop.
"Man tends to increase at a greater rate than his means of subsistence. "
...ah hem...climate change much? Much too much.
"We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. "
...Hey you! yeah you with the tail bone there you're sittin on, yes you monkey boy. Pull your head out of your ass and eat a banana already.
In closing...thank you Mr. Darwin for starting a raging snowball. I wonder what he would think about the fact that 200 years later people would have to be protected by the constitution of the united states to teach evolved derivatives of his ideas to children, children who by the very tenets of their own organismal evolution will destroy the only planet they are capable of inhabiting.