Saturday, January 10, 2009

How evolution evolved - Cosmic Log -

How evolution evolved - Cosmic Log -

Where did the theory of evolution come from? And where's it going? Essayists and scientists are rallying to answer such questions during the countdown to Charles Darwin's 200th birthday.

The folks who want to build up Darwin's legacy (and the folks who want to challenge it) are gearing up for Feb. 12 by reflecting on the past, present and future of evolutionary theory. Scientific American has devoted virtually an entire issue of the magazine to the topic already, and this week the journal Science made Darwin its cover boy.

Evolution's past
Among the journal's highlights is a review article by Peter J. Bowler, a historian from the Queen's University of Belfast who focuses on the roots of Darwin's theory. Some might argue that Darwinism was so much "in the air" 150 years ago that if Darwin hadn't come up with the idea, someone else would have figured it out. But that's not the way Bowler sees it.

To be sure, other biologists had worked out the main outlines of the theory of natural selection - that is, the idea that advantageous traits become more common in succeeding generations. One of the reasons why Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" when he did was because another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was working on his own theory along similar lines.

Bowler maintains, however, that Darwin's formulation of the theory "was both original and disturbing."

"It was not just that the idea of natural selection challenged the belief that the world was designed by a wise and benevolent God," Bowler writes. "There was a wider element of teleology or goal-directedness almost universally accepted at the time."

Darwin would have scoffed at the idea that the evolutionary process was designed to go in any particular direction, other than pointing toward survival in "the struggle for existence."

Some critics have complained that evolution the way Darwin saw it was a cold-hearted process, and laid the groundwork for the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. (That theme comes through loud and clear in last year's anti-Darwin documentary, "Expelled.") In response, Bowler insists that "Darwinism was not 'responsible' for social Darwinism or eugenics in any simple way," but he acknowledges that some of the more disturbing aspects of his theory were exploited by later generations.

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