“It has no escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
The words are those of Francis Crick and James Watson who, in their seminal 1953 Nature paper, correctly identified the structure of DNA and placed it at the centre of genetically inherited characteristics.
In “On the Origin of Species” published almost 100 years before, in 1859, Charles Darwin had first expounded his theories of natural selection. On February 12, it will be 200 years since the birth of possibly one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Darwin was well-aware that his theories would challenge the prevailing views about man’s place in the scheme of things. It took him more than 20 years before he could, eventually, be persuaded to put his work together and publish. Then it unleashed the storm he had been expecting.
As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form
Gravity, special relativity, quantum theory, thermodynamics … all of these scientific theories are intimately bound with specific people. All have changed the world out of all imagining. Yet only Darwin has challenged the fundamental way in which we view ourselves as human beings.
150 years on from the publication of “On the Origin of Species” – 200 years since Darwin’s birth – natural selection is still controversial. Scientifically, it is now beyond doubt that Darwin was correct. All the building blocks that are required to reinforce his original hypothesis are now in place: continental drift explains how creatures that were once identical were physically separated and continued their evolution independently, DNA shows how the trick is done, and DNA itself has allowed accurate time-frames to be developed to match observation and physical research.
Yet that is not sufficient for many. Arguing that it is a theory, many religious people declare that it doesn’t need to be taken seriously.
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring…. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection
Well, gravity is a theory too. Worse, gravity requires a graviton to exist before the theory will be considered proved and the graviton has yet to be found. In fact, few of the supporting sub-atomic particles in the standard model have been found. We’re still out on the Higg’s Bosun which is required to prove mass.
Natural selection, and its basis in evolutionary theory, are infinitely more tangible.
But how, it may be asked, can any analogous principle apply in nature? I believe it can and does apply most efficiently, from the simple circumstance that the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature, and so be enabled to increase in numbers
What Darwin taught us is sometimes counter-intuitive. That life-forms spread out to take advantage of every available niche that can support life. We find living things in undersea volcanic vents; in sulphurous pools, in the coldest and hottest environments, in the driest and most remote areas.
“Fittest” does not always mean the most admirable creatures survive. “Fittest” means relative to the environment in which the life-forms find themselves. If the entire planet became suddenly dry, then creatures that once survived only at the fringes of life would suddenly be fittest.
And, suddenly, human beings are not at the centre of creation. We have become successful under circumstances that are random. Individuals continue to become successful at random even within the broad expanse of humanity.
For many, it is intolerable that there is no higher judge of order than random distribution, heritable characteristics and environmental chance. Even the non-religious find much that is uncomfortable and antagonising in the theory of natural selection.
Much of modern political theory is an attempt to get away from the battle of natural selection. Economics is a study of the adaptation of markets, individual- and collective behaviour to scarcity. Nothing is so “natural” as business and economic cycles where the strongest, and the lucky, survive.
What Darwin has taught us is that survival goes to those most determined and capable of adaptation; not the most moral, or the most noble, or the most deserving.
During this most tumultuous of historical moments, Darwin still has much to teach us. For those who would listen.
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