What Darwin did not know, but you do.

February 11, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More

I have Darwin on my mind these days, perhaps because tomorrow is Darwin Day.

To celebrate Darwin Day, I sat down to read the February 2009 edition of National Geographic, which, according to the front cover, features an article entitled “What Darwin Didn’t Know.”  Once you get inside the magazine, however, you’ll see that the main article is actually entitled “Darwin’s First Clues.”  It is an extraordinary article setting straight some of the misconceptions about the manner in which Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection.  You can read that article online here.  you can also watch a short introductory video by writer David Quammen, who explains that Darwin “is a man who just will not go away,” and whose ideas are not only still relevant, but “central” to the field of biology.

If you read this article, you’ll see that Darwin’s first clue toward evolution occurred not in the Galapagos, but three years earlier on the northern coast of Argentina, where Darwin found fossils of giant sloths. You’ll also read about his numerous fossil finds of giant mammals, “extinct Pleistocene giants.”

Quammen’s article points out that, for all of his gifts, Dawn was not a comparative anatomist. For this reason, he entrusted much of that work to others, including John Stevens Henslow, a botanist at Cambridge and Richard Owens, “an up-and-coming authority on extinct mammals.”

Darwin was certainly aware of the implications of the diversity and distributions of the flora and fauna he studied. The fact that fossils of giant extinct mammals could be found in the same places as still-living relatives suggested the idea of “relatedness and succession among closely allied species” rather than a God who had specially created species, placing them on the planet in arbitrary locations.  Darwin’s explanation was certainly “more economical, more inductive and more persuasive than the creationist scenario.”

In the paper version of National Geographic (though this is not available online) is a chart demonstrating numerous scientific findings of which Darwin was not aware.  Around 1865, for example, Gregor Mendel conducted his experiments demonstrating “factors” in pea plants, but there is no evidence that Charles Darwin had access to Mendel’s findings.  Consider some of the other extraordinary evidence which has become widely known subsequent to Darwin’s death in 1882.

In 1906, radioactive decay experiments indicate that the earth is actually billions of years old, not thousands.

In 1892, August Weisman postulated that a substance in chromosomes was responsible for the inheritance of traits.

Around 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan and colleagues inferred the existence of genes based upon studying many generations of fruit flies.

The 1920’s – Genetics experiments indicate that mutations can provide the raw material for evolution and that small mutations can spread widely through a population.

The 1930s – “The modern synthesis” is a general agreement by scientists that “evolution is seen to proceed through natural selection and other random mechanisms, with new species originating through the gradual accumulation of mutations in isolated populations.”

1953 – Francis Crick and James Watson discover the double-helix morphology of DNA.

1974 – Donald Johanson discovers “Lucy,” an Australopithecus female who is deemed to be of the species at the “base of the human lineage.”

The 1970s – Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould present their theory of punctuated equilibrium; Richard Dawkins writes The Selfish Gene. E. O. Wilson writes Sociobiology, suggesting the genetic basis for changes in behavior.

1977 – Carl Woese reclassifies organisms by the genetic similarity, rather than physical similarity, determining that life “is composed of three domains, splitting microbes into bacteria and archaea.”

2003 – gene sequencing demonstrates close some alerted between human and chimpanzee genomes.

Present day – Biologists reached agreement that much variation among species is due to controlling mechanisms of genes, rather than changes in genes themselves.

The opening paragraph to this National Geographic chart recognizes how astonishing Darwin’s discoveries were, given the paucity of evidence during his lifetime regarding the mechanism of inheritance.

So here we are, in 2009, and we all do have access to each of these immensely important discoveries. It would seem, then, that there is really no excuse for not taking the time to understand and appreciate the power and elegance of natural selection.  After all, we have Darwin’s meticulous and brilliant writings to guide us–if nothing else consider reading an abridged version of “The Origin of Species.”  We also have numerous corroborating findings that would’ve made Darwin’s work much easier for him. No excuses, right?  That’s what I think whenever I see charts showing the tepid response of Americans to Darwin’s brilliant analysis.  Note:  Upon his death, Darwin was given the great honor of being buried in Westminster Abby.

This is probably another good time to extol the terrific writing and photography of National Geographic. Every time I take the time to sit back and carefully read National Geographic, I am overwhelmed by the experience. I am transported to distant times and lands.  Every time.  It is always excellent.  I applaud the National Geographic for never giving an inch to the nationwide disparagement of science that has occurred over the past eight years–nothing was watered down through the Bush years.  It would be impossible to get a better bargain than a year’s worth of National Geographic for only $15.  you’ll even be able to see those charts and graphics, as well as numerous photographs that are not available online.


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Category: Evolution, ignorance, nature, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Check out the results of the new Gallup poll regarding Americans' belief in the theory of evolution.

    Notice that the percentage of those who "believe in the theory of evolution" soars as they have more education.

    I know that we can't always determine truth by voting on it, but it does seem that resistance to evolution by natural selection is a result of ignorance. That is my personal experience as well: Those people who attack the evolution of new species tend to not understand the basic principles of that which they are attacking.


  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Evolution is not only something that living things did in the past. They continue to evolve. Here are seven examples presented by MSNBC.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Evolution has moved not only beyond the individual, but beyond the biological. It is being used to understand the transition of a few primitive compounds to the chemical building blocks of life. Somewhat more pertinently, language seems to evolve towards efficient, easily propagated linguistic constructs. See here.

  4. Glenn says:

    "notice that the percentage of those who "believe in the theory of evolution" soars as they have more education"

    The rest of us yokels are just lucky we have our pants on facing forward. Pa-leeze! what would you honestly expect from a group of people who have heard nothing but evolution propoganda shoved down their throats during their higher education years, and any opposing viewpoint censured out. The problem is we tell people what to believe, instead of teaching them to think crically.

    Depending on how you define evolution, the 7 examples of evolution from mnsbc, are not. They demonstrate the variation within the dna of the species, not some "new" genetic info that somehow mutated itself into exsistence.

    Evolutionists like to point to the shuffling of the genetic deck of cards (something that happens every procreation) as evolution. For evolution to be true you need new cards slipped into the genetic deck of cards, cards that don't currently exsist in the gene pool of a specifc species.

    If you look at the butterfly example from mnsbc, they claim that the butterfly evolved within the span of one year, resistance to a type of bacteria. That's ridiculous. The butterfly already had within it's gene pool the cure for the bacteria, the off spring of the butterflies that carried the gene survive and the others don't. Natural selection yes, evolution no.

    If you look at the Australian skinks that lost their limbs, you'll notice that they said once they loose them, they can't get them back. This is an example of a loss of genetic information purported to be evolution. The gene that codes for limbs has been corrupted. Using the deck of cards example, If I remove the Ace of Spades from the deck, I can no longer play poker and end of with 4 of a kind (aces) and it inhibits my ability to aquire a royal flush etc.

    Am I better off having lost the Ace if it affects only me and not my competitors? I think not.

    You can look at humans, we've experienced genetic loss. Ever noticed dogs don't eat fruit yet they don't get scurvey? "making" vit c in the body is a 4 step process. We have step 1-3 but lack step 4. Dogs have step 1-4. Somewhere along the line step 4 was corrupted. Are we better off, are we more or less capable of survival thanks to this loss?

    FYI most creationist believe in natural selection and microevolution. Evolutionistst repeatedly use microevolution as proof of macroevolution as in the msnbc examples. This is just poor "science"

    Gotta run Erich just noticed my pants are on backwards.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Glenn: I see you've bought into the Creationist mantra about micro versus macro evolution, yet it's the same process. In the latter case, time is merely stretched out further. Check out this video for ten minutes. It should (but probably won't) change your way of thinking. For instance, you haven't offered any alternative theory to explain the vast evidence that is explained by evolution by natural selection. We've done this little dance at this blog before (not with you, but with others), and I think it's time to put up or shut up. Since you brought up the card analogy, put your cards on the table. How do you account for fossils, the relatedness of the genomes of phenotypically related organisms, the geographic distribution of organisms. If you reach for your Bible as your answer, you're going to get an "F" because "God did it" is not an explanation, nor is it the starting point for any further scientific investigation. "God did it" is a security blanket cuddled by those who don't want to do any real work, but simply want to pretend that they understand everything because they know how to thump their book full of ancient apocryphal stories.

      Scientists are now putting much more emphasis on the control systems for existing genes (rather than adding substantial numbers of new genes) to explain evolution. Therefore, your concern about the lack of a continual source of new genes is misguided.

      You need to go familiarize yourself with real science books on evolution instead of spending all that time listening to Ken Ham.

    • Glenn says:

      Can you be a bit more specific? I just want to make sure I'm on the same page as you. You asked "how do i explain the fossils" What does this mean? I think we all agree that plants and animals died and became fossils? Clairify please.

      You asked about the relatedness of the genomes of phenotipically related organisms. Which organisims did you have in mind?

      You asked me to explain the geographic location of organisims. And your point is? Because a polar bear lives in the cold he mutated to fit his geographic location?

      I don't believe I once mentioned God or "God did it" in my original post. Interesting how quickly you attempt to control what sources are acceptable for discussion/reference and which are not. Let's see you've eliminated God, the bible and Ken Ham. Anybody else you'd like to censure?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      As I expected, you are afraid to play your cards. Presumably because you don't HAVE any alternative theory to explain the ubiquitous evidence that IS accounted for by evolution. I took a guess that your world view is a prefabricated place dominated by "God, bible and Ham" because so many people who disparage the fact of evolution hunker down in that "world."

      The thing that is clear to me is that you have reacted to my comment with faux-victimization. Instead of playing your cards, you give empty protests. Hence, I can only assume that you have no alternative theory to evolution by natural selection (follow the links I already gave you so that you understand the meaning of "theory"). Hence, there is no need to discuss this topic further with you, because you are engaged in sport rather than thoughtful discourse, the sport being selective hyper-skepticism. You aim your drummed up sense of doubt only at science and you totally wall off those things that give you personal comfort. That way of thinking is certainly not scientific.

      I don't want to sound patronizing, but I must also add that if you don't understand the things to which I have referred in my post and comment to you, you really ought to go to your public library and pick up a couple good books on evolution and take the time to read them. There are also some good sites on the home page of this site.

    • Dan Klarmann says:

      Glenn obviously missed the whole news cycle about new genes resulting in a never before seen trait spontaneously appearing in laboratory observations last year. No gene splicing or manipulation was involved. Here's our report on Historical Contingency Proven in Labs from June 2008. In brief, a species developed the ability to eat a substance that had never before been edible to it. Within a few dozen generations the entire population had the new trait, able to live where none of their ancestors could have survived.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Not everyone is celebrating Darwin Day by honoring Darwin. This article is about a so-called University dedicated to creationism:

    As universities everywhere this month mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his “Origin of Species,” which details his theory of evolution, Liberty University has a focus that is unabashedly different.

    “At this university, we’re going to be celebrating creation,” announced Law School Dean Mathew Staver to a cheering crowd of students at a convocation service in early February.

    Liberty is on the front lines in the battle of creationism vs. evolution. And it has a battalion of creationist lawyers, scientists and professors in dozens of areas who weave creationism into their coursework and teach students on how to refute the theory of evolution.

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