Charles Darwin: Great Biologist, or GREATEST Biologist?

This was originally written for the Darwin Day celebration on the 12th. Subsequently I was urged to put it on the blog, and so I have.

Today is the 200th aniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, and this year is the 150th aniversary of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.

For many people, its easy to write Darwin off as a nobody who just happened to stumble on to the greatest revolution the biological sciences have ever seen, to write him as a clergyman who couldn’t do anything, a wannabe doctor that couldn’t stand the sight of blood right so he took a voyage on a ship named after a breed of dog and stared at some finches for a while, thus having a eureka moment.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Darwin was not just some guy who by chance founded evolutionary biology, he was a biological genius. He was the Issac Newton of the biological sciences. Darwin knew everything that had been written about biology back then. He was an equal to the best of the best in geology, botany and ornithology. He was a world expert on coral reefs, bees, beetles, carnivorous plants, pigeons, earthworms, orchids, and especially, ESPECIALLY, he was the world expert on barnacles. He was also a prolific writer, having many publications and over 20000 non published papers. Darwin also had an excellent memory and the sort of mind that found the perfect question to ask. This, all this, from a non academic who dropped out of medical school from the fear of blood, a failed clergyman, and a person who suffered from sickness (possibly chaggas disease) through out the the later portion of his life, allowing him to be active no more than 2-3 hours a day.

When you read On the Origin of Species carefully (first edition or WAYSA?), the genius of this person is so obvious. There is hardly a page where he does not anticipate some future aspect of biology or ecology, many of those 100 years ahead of his time. He does it so casually too, throwing short summaries of experiments he conducted which are so profound yet he gives so little time to. In a page he discovers mutualism, or anticipates the concept of a niche, or island biogeography, or population models. He was SO CLOSE to grasping the mechanism of inheritance; you can see him just out of reach throughout the text, and he died before he could discover Mendel’s work on peas and allele crossing.

So, as a biologist this is a great day for a great human, the greatest biologist, the founder of so many sciences, but I think it is also a day for all people to remember and recall our biology, our ancestry, the history of our planet and the processes of life which abound everywhere.

You see, even if he induced natural selection from four obvious observable facts (summary: inheritable variation, overproduction of offspring and selective deaths) of nature (which he figured out in part by studying Malthus more than his grandfather, Lamarck*, Lyell, or anyone else), HE FREAKIN INDUCED NATURAL SELECTION. Okay? And not only did he induce it he had the REAMS OF EVIDENCE to back it up. He spends one chapter in On the Origin actually laying out Natural Selection and spends the rest of the book lining, nay, PILING up evidence for his claim. Wallace, on the other hand, wrote a 6 page document; what did he think he was going to achieve with so little evidence?  He had to convince the western world to turn away from 2000 years of belief in platonic forms. He made a leap of logic that is so antithetical to Aristotelian philosophy. He was the greatest mind in biology ever, and also the humblest, because unlike Carol von Linne, he didn’t want glory. He was a seeker. If we could have brought him here today and showed him the world he brought about through his amazing mind

he would back away in humility, and say “The evidence spoke for me.”

For knowing so much, understanding so much, for asking the right questions and finding the right answers, even if he leaped off of the shoulders of giants, THAT is why he deserves every ounce of credit he gets.

*For goddsakes people, quit putting down Lamarck already. He was a brilliant man, so similar to Darwin in many ways. There was so much he wrote that feels it could have come from Darwin’s own writings, and yet we are left with this cartoonish image of him because the only thing anyone ever remembers or writes about is the giraffe neck stretching.

Some Lamarck quotes:

“time and favorable conditions are the two principal means which nature has employed in giving existence to all her productions. We know that for her time has no limit, and that consequentily she always has it at her disposal.”

“Do we not therefore perceive that by the action of the laws of organization…nature has in favorable times, places and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations,…and increased and diversified their organs? Then…aided by much time and by a slow but constand diversity of ciercumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe. How grand is this consideration, and especially how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject!”

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