Can We Forgive Darwin?

30 July 2009

The 24th June I took a day off to spend some time with my two grown up daughters. We try to do this every now and again and spend the day experiencing something new. This time we agreed to visit the Darwin exhibition at the Zoological Museum in Oslo. The main object of the trip was to have a look at the fossil Ida (be patient – we will get to her) which is a part of the exhibition. The museum is beautifully situated in Tøyen park.

Zooligical Museum, Oslo

The gardens there were lovely:

Zoological_garden

The exhibition was very interesting and well worth visiting though difficult to photograph because of the low light levels. It was very encouraging that many children were visiting the exhibition.

The exhibitions sub-title (the title of this post) irritated me. That was perhaps the point…

Darwin exibition, Oslo

<Start rant…
Why do we need to forgive Darwin? Science deals with physical evidence not beliefs. Darwin gave the world the best explanation of the physical evidence as to how life came to be as it is. His theory has, with improvements as our knowledge improves, stood the test of time for 150 years and is extremely well supported by the evidence. Evolution is as close to being a fact as any scientific theory can be. Should we forgive Copernicus for his formulation the Heliocentric Theory? Or Newton for his formulation the Theory of Gravity? That is silly. You don’t forgive theories you disprove them – if you can. So far nobody has.
…End rant>

The exhibition teaches us that Darwin’s concept is based on four premises and one conclusion:

Premise number 1: Inheritance

We inherit traits from our parents. Eye-colour, muscular strength, singing voice, the shape of our ears and the kinds of food we prefer – all is to some extent inheritable. Darwin grew up in the countryside and was well versed in how farmers used animal traits in animal breeding.

Premise number 2: Variation

No two people are exactly the same. Even identical twins are not quite identical. the same goes for all organisms. This was already known in Darwin’s time, but the reason for these differences was a mystery. Genes and mutations were not discovered until the 20th century.

Premise number 3: The struggle for existence

Darwin was fascinated by the economist Thomas Malthus, who wrote that populations will grow faster than the necessary resources. This holds true for all animal species: Many more are born than grow up. A female cod will spawn millions of eggs during her life, yet on average only two will reach maturity.

Premise number 4:  Natural selection

Survival is not a random process! Some individuals have traits that help them in the struggle for life. It is these individuals who are most likely to reach maturity and breed, transferring their traits to the  next generation. Their traits will then become more common with each generation, while the traits belonging to those who did not breed will fade away.

The conclusion: Species change over time

In Darwin’s time, it was commonly believed that each species had ‘always been like that’. The conclusion of Darwin’s theory was that species are not that constant. Even small changes in the environment will make species change and new species appear. Darwin argued that all organisms share a common ancestor.

And so to our great aunt Ida (Darwinius masillae).

About Ida

This is what experts think Ida looked like:

Ida visualization

Here are images of the fossil taken through the glass case – hence the reflections.

Darwinius masillae

Darwinius masillae

Darwinius masillae

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12th February 2008 – Darwin Day

12 February 2008

Charles Robert Darwin aged 51
The following quote is the famous last paragraph of Charles Robert Darwin‘s The Origin of Species.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Today is Darwin Day and we celebrate the birth of Charles Robert Darwin on 12th February 1809. This gentleman naturalist is one of the most influential individuals in the history of science. His Theory of Evolution is (though controversial in certain religious circles) almost universally accepted as fact by the scientific community.