Monday, April 13, 2009

Final Thoughts on Darwin and the Origin

When I first signed up for this course I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected to get out of it, other than interesting discussions and a chance to finally read the Origin, a book that has sat on my bookshelf for years collecting dust. The thing that impressed me most, and I’m sure it’s going to sound a little repetitive at this point, is the wide breadth of knowledge and numerous fields of science (geology, paleontology, biogeography, embryology, etc) that Darwin incorporated and referenced throughout the book. In addition to his broad scope, Darwin gave such specific examples and minute details. The shear volume of evidence to support the theory of evolution via natural selection is truly impressive; especially considering it was just an abstract.

I was also constantly surprised by how relevant the Origin still is today. Darwin was rarely completely off the mark, which is all the more impressive considering all the advances we have made over the last 150 years, of which Darwin was completely ignorant. It was particularly fun to read statements that in a way were prophetic. I wish I could have seen Darwin’s reaction to the discovery of Archaeopteryx! But then again, that’s one of the things that set Darwin’s theory apart from those of other evolutionary scientists of his time. Predictability! This course gave me a better idea of why (and how) Darwin’s theory was so significant and revolutionary.

Something I had never really thought about until recently is how evolutionary science itself is changing and evolving. Not having an extensive biology background, I had always thought of evolutionary biology as (relatively) immutable and was surprised to realize that the science itself is evolving. It makes complete sense, that in any field of study the more you learn, the more questions you ask, and the new directions you take. I just never really thought about it before.

I was also very impressed with Darwin’s “faith”, for lack of a better term, in his theory. He dedicated a whole chapter to problems with his theory and was fully willing to admit that he didn’t have it all figured out. Despite this and the heavy scrutiny he was under, he stood by his theory and didn’t back step (at least not on the main points?). I haven’t read the later editions.

I also respect the fact that Darwin made a clear distinction between his science and his religion. Considering the topic he was discussing one would expect Darwin’s personal beliefs to be somewhat more on the forefront in the late 1800’s. Even today there is a lot of speculation about Darwin’s personal beliefs, but he kept it separate and private, an incredibly wise move in my opinion.

I have really enjoyed reading the origin and listening to the weekly discussions. They have also made me much more curious about Darwin “the man”, which we got a taste of in Janet Browne’s biography and in some of the discussions. When I have a little more time for myself, I want to read some of Darwin’s letters and his other works. Hopefully they won’t collect too much dust before I crack their spines!

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