Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Charles Darwin, 1809 - 1882

Darwin knew a lot of biology: more than any of his contemporaries, more than a surprising number of his successors. From prolonged thought and study, he was able to intuit how evolution worked without having access to all the subsequent scientific knowledge that others required to be convinced of natural selection. He had the objectivity to put aside criteria with powerful emotional resonance, like the conviction that evolution should be purposeful. As a result, he saw deep into the strange workings of the evolutionary mechanism, an insight not really exceeded until a century after his great work of synthesis.

Darwin’s theory of evolution has become the bedrock of modern biology. But for most of the theory’s existence since 1859, even biologists have ignored or vigorously opposed it, in whole or in part. It is a testament to Darwin’s extraordinary insight that it took almost a century for biologists to understand the essential correctness of his views.

Darwin's great insight was that the living world today holds the key to our biological past. The fact that he worked in an age before genetics, before the discovery of radioactivity, before the identification of even a single pre-human fossil, makes his work that much more remarkable. Darwin didn't know about the gene, but today we trace the ways in which genes themselves produce evolutionary change. Darwin didn't know about DNA, but today we follow the course of evolution thru our own DNA and the story is unmistakable. Like everything else on this planet, we evolved.
-- Ken Miller

A year later, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin's endorsement of a group of radical atheists. Darwin declined the offer, elaborating his reason: "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion." Emma was a deeply religious woman, so out of love and respect for her, Darwin kept the public side of his religious skepticism in check, an admirable feat of self-discipline by a man of high moral character.

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