Evolution is a big deal.
Everyone probably understands the basics of how it works. “Things change over time,” and “good traits remain, while bad traits are eliminated” are common explanations from most people. It truly shows the power Darwin’s theory when 150 years later every student leaving high school is (or should be) aware of it. Unfortunately, what we learn about evolution in high school (and even first year biology) barely scratches the surface of how complex and beautiful evolution is.
I once had a physics teacher in first year who asked in front of the class (with my biology teacher in the room) why we still teach students about evolution. “Its basically the same stuff in high school regurgitated.” Besides setting up for an awkward academic debate between the two, the profs highlighted one of the common misconceptions about evolution: that it is a fully explored science. On the contrary, evolutionary biology is still a thriving field with many questions remaining unanswered.
The enormity of his theory is hard to grasp until you step back and take a look a it in the big picture. His process of natural selection is certainly his best known work, and it was as radical as it was significant. The apparent insanity of the idea may have in fact be one of the reasons why it took so long for him to finally publish On the Origin of Species: Darwin himself may not have been convinced of his theory. After all, he never had the ability to test it, it was distilled from a lifetime of observational work. This uncertainty is actually expressed in OoS as Darwin recounts many of the patterns in life that he couldn’t explain through his theory. Many of these examples have been explained as biology progresses (especially with the advent of DNA and genetics), but many of them still remain. Last year I took BIOL 418 – Evolutionary Ecology, a class designed to explore many of the major mysteries that still remain. Some of them we take for granted and might surprise you.
The biggest gift that Darwin gave us is the ability to see ourselves in all living organisms. The same way we can look into the eyes of a human being half a world away and see a piece of ourselves we can look closely at bugs, plants, and animals around us a see our common ancestry. It is truly a revelation not only for science, but also for the philosophy that it espouses.
There is a fantastic article about Darwin, What Darwin Didn’t Know in February’s National Geographic. Check it out if you can.