#70 Happy Birthday “On the Origin of Species”

Charles Darwin’s most well known publication “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” was published on this day, November 24, 1859, 152 years ago.  Today, the book and the theory that it proposed is still the subject of controversy and discussion.

Darwin proposed through his book the Theory of Natural Selection.  The biologist Ernst Mayr summarizes the theory: 

  • Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow.
  • Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size.
  • Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time.
  • A struggle for survival ensues.
  • Individuals in populations vary significantly from one another.
  • Much of this variation is inheritable.
  • Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection.
  • This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species.

Got it? Good.

Darwin worked on refining his theory for several decades.  He drew on his own research and on his travels on the HMS Beagle. In 1855 a paper written by Alfred Russel Wallace described a theory of natural selection that was very similar to Darwin’s.  Charles Lyell urged Darwin to publish his theory before he got scooped.  Darwin was reluctant to publish his theory in a paper and wanted to write a large treatise in book form.

On June 18, 1858, while Darwin was working on his book, he received a package from Wallace.  In it was a twenty page paper that essentially laid out Darwin’s theory.  Wallace wanted Darwin to present the paper to the Linnaean Society for him.  Darwin’s colleagues Lyell and Hooker urged him to present a joint paper to the Society so they could get equal credit.  The papers were read on July 1, 1858 with little reaction from the scientific community.

Darwin began to write an abstract of his work following the July meeting.  In March publishing agreements were arranged and on November 24 the book was finally published.  Of the published copies about 1,170 were initially available for sale.  Three thousand copies of the second edition was printed on January 7, 1860 and included corrections and a response to religious objections.  The book has since been published in over 25 languages.

So, this Thanksgiving give thanks for Darwin’s dedication to his science and his life’s work.  While you’re at it, give thanks to all of the scientists in this world and throughout history that have made your life better.  Look around you and you’ll realize how difficult your life would be had things like plastic and electricity not been invented and used for creative purposes.

Excellant "On the Origin of Species" graphic novel.Enjoy your dinner and remember that you’ll be sleepy this evening not because of tryptophan but because of the trials of dealing with family, the struggles of food preparation, and the 5,000 calories in carbohydrates that you just consumed.

See you in the field!

#27 A Question for Dawkins: Is God Necessary?

I just returned from The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, NV where Richard Dawkins gave a talk centered around his upcoming children's book, “The Magic of Reality”.  Dawkins discussed his book chapter by chapter with an emphasis on Chapter 9 which dealt with life elsewhere in the universe.

To discuss whether life could exist elsewhere, Dawkins discussed life on this planet.  He  listed the ways that life is unique and the ways that it isn’t.  He also discussed the things that seem to be inevitable when life does spring up somewhere.  I’m not going to go into any of that out of respect for the unpublished book, however, I do have a question that I was not able to ask during the lecture.

Is a belief in a higher power inevitable when intelligent life evolves somewhere?  Do you, Richard Dawkins, believe whether it is more likely or less likely that life will evolve a necessity for a belief in a higher power at some point in their development?

I’m wondering what would have happened if the large civilizations that rose up 4-6 kya  would have progressed in the science and philosophy fields sooner and more rapidly, would belief have been stomped out and not been so ubiquitous?  What if the Romans had promoted a scientific society and had forced atheism on the lands that they conquered?  Would it have been enough?  Are we (intelligent life) destined to believe in a higher power?  Will we ever be without some form of religion?

I’m assuming Richard Dawkins will never actually see this.  For the five of you that are reading this, what do you think?


Written at Walden's Coffeehouse, Reno, Nevada.  Home of Reno’s “Science Cafe” lecture series.