The Giant's Shoulders #17 - Darwin Sesquicentennial Edition

On November 24, 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Then, as now, many people were made uncomfortable to think that human beings could be related to the "lower" animals and this discomfort was regularly represented in popular depictions of Darwin during the 19th century. An excellent study on this was written by Darwin scholar Janet Brown in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. Interestingly enough, it was believed that the most cutting insult to Darwin (or perhaps just the funniest) was to compare him to a primate. Primates have often made people uncomfortable due to their alarmingly human characteristics. However, in what is perhaps the greatest irony, the reasons that people are made uncomfortable are the very reasons that show primates to be our closest evolutionary relatives. Today, the theory of natural selection is one of the best tested ideas in all of biology. While Darwin may have been pilloried in the past by the popular press, now it is he who has the last laugh.

A common misconception about evolution has long been that it is progressive, or that animals start off simple and always become more complex over time. This is wrong. Bacteria today are just as "evolved" as we are and are perfectly adapted to their environment (though the jury is still out on us). Nevertheless, this mistaken notion is repeatedly asserted.

"Man is But A Worm." Cartoon from Punch's almanac for 1882.

Starting off this month's edition, Brian Switek writing at Laelaps highlights how the march of progress has deep roots in the history of evolutionary biology:

The "March of Progress", the iconic evolutionary image of an ancestral ape transforming into a proud, tool-wielding human, is not going anywhere. There is perhaps no other illustration that is as immediately recognizable as representing evolution, but the tragedy of this is that it conveys a view of life that does not resemble our present understanding of life's history.

Cartoon ridiculing Charles Darwin as an ape. This caricature was originally published in the article, "A venerable orang-outang: a contribution to unnatural history", from The Hornet magazine, 1871.

Continuing with this theme of "progress" in evolutionary theory, I wrote a piece in the hopes of breaking the chain on the repeated use of the term "missing link" in relation to the fossil discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus:

As a result of this Darwinian revolution, referring to Ardipithecus ramidus as a "missing link" is using an antiquated metaphor completely outside of the worldview that gave rise to it. It would be like referring to a medical breakthrough in the treatment of lung disease by using Galen's view that it caused a "reduction of phlegmatic humours" in the chest. This primate fossil is not a missing link any more than any other fossil find is, whether they be ancestral to humans or ancestral to turkey buzzards. What the term reveals is nothing more than our human chauvinism implying that we were the one and sole purpose of creation.

Caricature of Charles Darwin contemplating a bustle, in Fun magazine, 1872

Also at Laelaps, Brian reviews the evolution of evolutionary theory to show how diversity is the spice of life, not only in natural history, but in ideas about natural history:

As I started to dig deeper into the history of science I found a complex story which I had never heard about before. Evolutionary ideas were percolating among naturalists well before 1859, and Darwin certainly did not have the last word on how organisms evolved. Indeed, there is a great span of time, from 1860 through about 1950, which is often ignored in popular summaries of evolutionary thought. That is because those are the years between the publication of On the Origin of Species and the establishment of the modern evolutionary synthesis, a time during when the mechanisms by which life evolved were in doubt.

"Prof. Darwin. This is the ape of form." Cartoon taken from Figaro, 1874

Darwin rarely discussed where he thought life originated. However, Greg Fish writing at Weird Things looks at Charles Darwin and Otto Hahn's alien fossils suggesting that Darwin not only accepted the chemical origin of life, but may well have considered life's constituents as having their origin from elsewhere in the universe:

Just because Darwin wouldn't discuss the origin of life in his work, doesn't mean he didn't have an opinion on the matter. And that opinion is actually pretty close to modern scientific thinking, that living things are products of chemistry rather than something requiring divine intervention. . . However, there's one very interesting tidbit that caught my attention. It seems that the naturalist may have been exposed to the concept of panspermia, the idea that living things could cross space and seed young worlds where the newly landed aliens can spring up if the conditions are just right for their survival.

This Life magazine cartoon from 1859 reacts to public discomfort with Darwin's treatise on evolution. The cartoon is entitled "The Lion of the Season" in which an alarmed flunkey says, "Mr. GG-G-O-O-O-RILLA."

Darwin has often been criticized by conservative Christians for being responsible for eugenics. No matter how often it's demonstrated that Darwin rejected eugenics, it doesn't seem to matter. Here, Romeo Vitelli writing at Providentia looks at how the eugenics movement in the 18th and 19th centuries was a misguided (and often racist) approach with the goal of saving civilization:

As for Charles Darwin himself, he was never a major supporter of eugenics (he knew his own family's genetic shortcomings too well to accept his cousin's views on heredity fitness).; He viewed intelligence and character as being environmental in nature and, in later years, he openly despaired of the less capable members of society outbreeding what he termed "the better class of men" but spoke out against forced selective breeding. Some cures were worse than the disease.

In a more modern example on the occaision of Darwin's 200th birthday in February this year, Chan Lowe of the Sun-Sentinel depicts the ongoing battle between science and religion.

Darwin's work destroyed forever the attempts by Biblical literalists to create a scientific history of the world using the supposed word of God. However, rather than ridicule these attempts perhaps we should respect them for what they were, misguided as they seem today. The Renaissance Mathematicus writes in defense of the indefensible by looking at Archbishop James Ussher and his much maligned date and time for the beginning of creation:

How did Ussher arrive at his strange date? He originally determined on theoretical theological grounds that the creation took place in 4000 BC and proceeded to fit the entire Old Testament history into those 4000 years but then corrected the birth of Christ to 4 BC, due to the calculation errors of Dionysius Exiguus when he first set up the AD/BC dating system, and so pushed creation back to 4004 BC. Ussher's achievements in his analysis of Old Testament history are in fact a great feat of scholarship and earned him the accolades of his fellow chronologists. But why 6pm and the 22nd of October?

Cartoon from Punch magazine May 18, 1861

While there were a large number of Darwin themed entries this month, there were some excellent entries that focused on other fascinating intersections between the history of science and its modern practice. For example, PalMD writing at The White Coat Underground looks at the history of vaccination and how policies designed for fighting one disease gave rise to another:

In these pre-vaccination days, smallpox pustules would be lanced, and their contents inserted into the skin of healthy people, producing a (hopefully) minor, localized infection which would then protect people from severe smallpox infection. Smallpox inoculation saved many lives but was not without risk. Later in the century, Edward Jenner developed the practice that ultimately replaced it: vaccination. This practice was based on the observation that milkmaids previously infected with cowpox ("vaccinia"), a usually-minor infection in humans, were relatively safe from smallpox. Two hundred years later, smallpox was gone.

The uncomfortable connection between primates and people also predated Darwin such as this 1849 cartoon from Punch. The "Prodigy" exclaims, "Mamma! Look! Dere, dere Papa!"

Fëanor writing at Just A Mon, describes the logic behind his new study addressing Newton's Law of Cooling and leads him to ask, does hot water freeze faster than cold water?

Immediately after we were taught Newton's Law of Cooling in high-school, the physics teacher asked us which vessel of water would freeze faster - one with water at 70°C or an identical vessel with the same mass of water at 20°. The consensus among my classmates was that the former vessel would freeze quicker, in accordance with Newton's law. I, however, objected.

Illustration by the artist Goedecker in 1871 after the publication of Darwin's Descent of Man.

Jennifer Ouellette writing at Cocktail Party Physics reviews the history of battery technology and looks to the future use of biophysics in her post Batteries Not Included:

Some historians believe primitive batteries were used in Iraq and Egypt as early as 200 B.C. for electroplating and precious metal gilding. Around the 1790s, through numerous observations and experiments, Luigi Galvani, an Italian professor of anatomy, caused muscular contraction in a frog by touching its nerves with electrostatically charged metal. Later, he was able to cause muscular contraction by touching the nerve with different metals without a source of electrostatic charge. He concluded that animal tissue contained an innate vital force, which he termed "animal electricity.

Darwin's book on climbing plants, reprinted in 1875, gave Punch occasion for a complacent chortle.

Greg Laden investigates the irony of Henry Adams and the oft repeated quote of his that, "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."

The quote is by Henry Adams and comes from his book "The Education of Henry Adams" which sounds an awful lot like a title for a porn movie. Since this is a book, first circulated in 1907, about education it must be the case that this quote refers to the positive power of educators back then, and presumably, now. Right? Certainly that is the meaning that is usually attributed to it.

Charles Darwin as depicted on the cover of the French satirical magazine La Petite Lune, published in Paris (circa 1870-80).

Greg also touches on the history of psychology as a featured blogger with Seed magazine where he explores the "uncanny valley" of encountering near-perfect copies of ourselves:

C.S. Peirce saw the human mind as a habit-making machine. Novel things (situations, actions, objects) elicit an emotional reaction, often discomfort. As the novel thing becomes old and the perceiver inured, the thing becomes part of the background, the idea internalized, the physicality automated. Symbols become mere icons, startling meaning becomes mere expectation, overtly conscious action becomes subconscious reaction.

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created in 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy.

That concludes this month's edition of The Giant's Shoulders. In honor of the sesquicentennial of On the Origin of Species I feel it's only fitting however to give the final word to Darwin himself:

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.


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Wonderful posting. But please don't get lazy with the details. You said
"Bacteria today are just as "evolved" as we are and are perfectly adapted to their environment (though the jury is still out on us)."

To say bacteria is perfectly adapted to their environment is simplifying things way way too much. Bacteria are no more perfectly adapted to their environment than we are to ours. As you well know, it's always a matter of keeping up with the changes and variations in the environment, not settling in with some perfect solutions to a static situation.

That said, I'm glad to see someone finally clarifying that all living organisms are as "highly" adapted as we are.

By robinottawa (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

Some of my family may have swung in a tree. But, not from their tails.