In 2009, many of us will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species.
In these modern times, where Darwin is vilified by millions of people who cherry-pick their apocryphal holy books, it is refreshing and humbling to review the many accomplishments that make Charles Darwin such an noteworthy thinker and scientist.
Professor of integrative biology Kevin Padian has taken the time to come up with ten of Darwin’s most notable accomplishments. Padian’s list was published in the February 7, 2008 edition of Nature (only available to subscribers online). As Padian notes, Darwin’s contributions “can scarcely be reduced to a simple list, but the following 10 topics and at the magnitude of the man’s legacy.”
- Darwin conceptualized the diversification of species as coming from a single stock and springing forth in a tree-like pattern of descent. Padian notes that this “unity of life” approach was independently confirmed by geneticists more than a century after Darwin published his Origin. Note Darwin’s 1837 sketch of the treelike diversification of species from a single stock (republished in the Nature article).
- Darwin’s tree of life implied a genealogical relatedness among all life forms.
- Darwin recognized ubiquitous gaps in the great chain of being. “The living world is a patchwork of possible forms, with most transitional stages and features removed.” Padian explains that these gaps are why it is so easy to separate living things into discrete major groups and why it’s sometimes are difficult to link life forms.
- Darwin calculated geological time paste upon the wearer of rock formations in England. He concluded that “Deep Time” was necessary to explain the changes in life forms, and this passage of time was much more than the 6,000 years proposed by Bible scholars.
- Darwin was the first to recognize understandable biogeographical distributions of species. Living things were not distributed serendipitously
- Darwin recognized the importance of sexual selection, the process by which many species developed characteristics that would give them advantages in reproduction rather than immediate survival.
- Through his study of orchids, Darwin recognized the importance of co-evolution: “species of very different origins have evolved mutual ecological relations through time they have come to affect critical aspects of their morphologies. Other good examples are vertebrates and their parasites and lichens (composed of algae and fungi).
- Darwin’s idea of the “economy of nature” was the birth of the science of ecology.
- Darwin recognized that change was gradual, not necessarily in a slow and smooth way, but in a (from the Latin gradas, meaning “step”) step-like way. This method of conceptualizing change was further developed by Stephen Jay Gould through his concept of punctuated equilibrium.
Padian characterizes Darwin’s most notable accomplishment as moving the study of biology “from a paradigm of untestable wonder at special creation to inability to examine the workings of that natural world, however ultimately formed, in terms of natural mechanisms and historical patterns.”For his numerous of competences, Darwin was honored by being buried in Westminster Abbey.