February 10, 2009

Darwin's Legacy

It's about that time....

February 2009 is officially Darwin's 200 birthmonth. The New York Times has most of this week's science section devoted to his legacy. I find it interesting that in the popular imagination, Darwin is viewed as being a one-trick pony. Most people don't realize this, but Darwin was what we might call a theoretical synthesist (like myself). That is, he took all of the accumulating evidence and put it forth in a coherent form. Sometimes people don't really like what you have to say, but it needs to be said.

NY Times Darwin spread

Put yourself in 19th century Europe. Consider that until the 16th century, most people knew very little if anything about the natural world outside of Europe. Consider further that the bible purportedly held all of the answers regarding how natural diversity and the earth itself got there. From the renaissance until the 19th century, Europeans observed things like fossils in cliff walls or novel species in Australia and had no frame of reference for which to put them in other than the Bible's great flood. Darwin's work essentially built on the work of people like Cuvier, Aggaziz, and other naturalists of the time. However, he added just that little bit of extra insight that made the difference between Darwin being a household name and Lamarck (who made an earlier attempt at synthesis) being widely ridiculed.

Below is a link to a list of Darwin's publications:

List of publications

Interestingly, he published not just the Origin of Species, but books on sexual selection and facial expressions, geology, and, towards the end of his life, plant behavior. In particular, he was interested in the effects of a hormone called Auxin on phototropism. Of course, Darwin was a man of his time in that he knew little about genes or biochemistry, and didn't test his many theories in an elegant manner. On the other hand, one could make the same accusations about Einstein. But such is the life of a synthesist.

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