Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Preparing for Darwin's Birthday: Celebrations & Myths

Tomorrow is Darwin's 200th Birthday and all over the blogosphere and in magazines, TV etc. there are a lot of interesting things on Darwin, "Darwinism", and evolutionary biology.

Some Highlights:

Ed Yong of Not Exaxtly Rocket Sciene has started a 8-posts series on evolutionary research to celebrate Darwin's bicentennial. The topics covered so fare are

Posts on evolutionary arms races, human evolution, virus evolution, and co-evolution and horizontal gene transfer are still to follow.

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts will try to clarify some of the oft-repeated myths about Darwin and his ideas.
These will include:

  • Darwin did not believe in the reality of species
  • Darwin did not explain the origin of species in The Origin of Species
  • Darwin was actually a Lamarckian
  • Darwin was a gradualist
  • Darwin thought evolution relied on accidents and chance
  • Darwin thought everything was due to natural selection
  • Darwin thought that Australian aborigines were closer to apes than to Europeans
  • Darwin was a social Darwinian
There are some things in there I thought to be true. But otheres are pretty obvious. Just for fun I'll quicky adress two of these myths (although John Wilkins will have a lot mor to say about them, of course), and add another one that's not a myth but just a wrong assumption.

Myth: Darwin thought everything was due to natural selection
Wrong. In The Origin of Species he clarifies that:

"I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification. (69)"

In this book he also introduced the factor of sexual selection, i.e. the fact that evolutionary change can also be influenced by females choosing mates with certain traits.
In his 1871 book adressing human evolution, The Descent of Man, Darwin tried to explain the evolution of many of the mental powers of humans in terms of sexual selection.

It is also important to note that in this book Darwin also pointed out that:
"Important as the struggle for existence has been and still is yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important"
This also brings us to the next Myth

Myth: Darwin was a Social Darwinist
No. People who advocated these ideas of laissez faire capitalism were Herbert Spencer, John Fiske and William Graham Sumner (although it is debated how much he really was a Social Darwinist). They came up with this ideads after reading Darwin, but more often, (as in the case of John Fiske), after reading Herbert Spencer interpreting Darwin in his own way.

Also, Darwin is sometimes quoted a promoting eugenics with this statement:
"It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."
But as we have seen above, for humans there are other agencies more important and this is why he continues:
"If we were to intentionally neglect the weak and the helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with overwhelming present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind"

Another popular misconception, not really a myth, is that Darwin coined the term "survival of the fittest." But in fact the term was coined by Herbert Spencer (who had already proposed his own concept of evolution in 1855) after reading Darwin. Darwin then used the term in later versions.

The New Scientist also has a page up on 24 popular misconceptions about evolutionary theory

There's also another reason to celebrate: Carl Zimmer of the Loom has announced that he's writing a textbook for non-biology-majors and the general reader called The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution and it's going to come out this year in August. Woohoo!

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