Monday, April 13, 2009

So, I was talking about Darwin in lab

And one of my labmates was all like "Was Darwin married? Did he have kids?" and I was like "Yeah he married his cousin, she had 10 kids, 7 who survived" and they were like "Oh, I guess I ...never cared enough about him to know these kinds of things."

(stops talking like a teenager for a bit)

It's entirely possible to do biology, evolutionary or otherwise, without having the slightest clue who Darwin was, besides:

Just the same as its possible to do physics without knowing who Newton was, or be a political writer without knowing who Machiavelli was, or be a speculative fiction writer without knowing who H.G. Wells was. But it's deeply ironic when people who care about the past (particularly of a prehistorical nature), and spend their time discussing events that occurred to the ancestors of the ancestors of us and our pets and their fleas, are not willing to employ a bit of the same interest in discovering the ancestry of the science they study.

Obviously reading through the Origin is in no way as naturally uplifting as seeing where australopithecines once walked the Great Rift Valley, or seeing the collected corpse of someone who we now know as Turkana boy, or peeking at the flattened skeleton of Eomaia and trying to find the family resemblance between you and a pile of fossilized hair and bones.

And to act like a Hennigian dogmatist for a second (with a slight usage of Dawkinsian lingo thrown in for good measure), of course Darwin can not be proved to be an intellectual ancestral taxon, we can only argue that his memes had unique synapomorphies which are shared with the evolutionary scientist crown group.

But the Origin is the book that brought biology into the materialistic, mechanistic universe that Newton helped introduce to European science. Natural theology, vitalistic forces, special creation, the concept that life was somehow intangibly different than non-life: all of these ideas were slowly or quickly thrown out of biology due to the materialism that Darwin brought to the table and forced everyone to drink.

"A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

Due to his legendary stinging wit, I imagine Pope would say something not nice about me (or maybe my own wits) for using his words to back up the destruction of theological biology. And despite my Dawkins fanboy tendencies, I'm not in anyway insinuating that Chuck D is an atheist icon. His wife would have smacked him.

(Though I will agree with Rick D that, for the most part, the Origin does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But that's another story.)

Darwin is simply a very good critical thinker who linked together some observations about the world, made some predictions based on those observations, and formulated a simple but powerful mechanism for how large change can happen in small pieces over large pieces of time. Some of his arguments make as much sense now as they did back then, while others (like his insistence to ever talk about use and disuse, ARGH) have faced criticism and been sloughed off.

The intellectual lightweights who consider Darwin to be the devil's lieutenant make a big deal of the man and his works. Reading enough about him to recast the story in a more realistic light is the least an evolutionary scientist should do to honour thine ancestors.

To paraphrase another 19th century European theorist, "Evolutionary scientists of the world, unite, and read Darwin, you have nothing to lose but your chains (and a coupla days)!"

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