Field of Science

Happy 150th, Origin!

Science is a rather peculiar activity. Upon solving a particular problem, many more scientific questions arise from that. There is no end -- any elucidation tends to result in more and more work to do. Which is why we'd be eternally employable, were it not for a rather anti-scientific attitude in the general public (partly our doing). To quote a nice tidbit from a protistology lecture: "People in science get famous for creating problems". An example that went along with that was the discovery of microbial life by van Leeuwenhoek -- with the help of a series of microscopes, he unlocked a Pandora's box worth of questions, eventually leading to the birth of a fairly major field -- microbiology. He created some serious problems: How could life exist on such a small scale? How many more microorganisms are there? Where do they live? What do they eat? How do they eat? and [much later] May microorganisms be in fact responsible for some human diseases? Leeuwenhoek discovered a whole new world, perhaps even the closest thing we'll have to aliens within our lifetimes.

150 years ago one has witnessed a milestone in the discovery of yet another alien world of questions, parts of which are luckily quite visible to the naked eye. While the microbial world remained hidden by barriers of scale, this world was perhaps hindered by a barrier in perspectives; after all, entering this world required, in the words of one of its critics, "a strange inversion of reasoning" (MacKenzie 1868 qtd in Dennett 2009). The mischievous creator of problems at this milestone was Charles Darwin. What is truly wonderful about evolutionary theory is its broad applicability throughout various corners of disciplines, from biology to linguistics to the humanities to engineering, computer sciences and beyond. Like a fractal, it is at some level so simple, yet upon further examination, there is no end to its complexity. Seldom do theories surface with such breadth and profundity.

Doubtlessly, The Origin was an important work, skillfully blending a breathtaking variety of naturalistic observations and Malthus' idea of natural selection to create a central, unifying theory adressing the origins and causes of the diverse living world. He established that heredity, variability and selection* were the key principles of an evolving system. Of course, there were problems, such as his rather primitive understanding of the mechanisms of heredity. But overall, it was a quite an important catalyst in the creation of a new world of questions: namely evolutionary biology, and eventually other applications of the theory. 150 years ago, this very day.

*Let's not get into THAT argument here...

However, perhaps we give Darwin a little too much credit, elevating him to something akin to a deity of evolutionary biology. Or at least some very powerful spirit. It almost feels as if evolutionary theory stopped in its tracks after Darwin. Thing is, ideas are seldom generated. They come from somewhere -- usually by being blended from other ideas (recombination, anyone?). He happened to listen to the right people, at the right place, at the right time. And was also a wonderful writer and populariser of his own ideas, which is key to spreading any idea. In fact, there was plenty of work done before him that was just waiting to be materialised into some foundational book. Read more about this in this level-headed approach to Darwin by John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts.

Headlines such as "Darwin was wrong: Scientists find X" are particularly annoying. Ok, so what? Of course Darwin was wrong on most things, just like the rest of us! Especially since science has progressed a little in the last 150 years. Is it really headline-worthy material? Why don't we ever say "Wallace was wrong" or "Newton was wrong", by the way? And, on that note, why not "Psi was wrong"? =D Darwin is not the Holy Guardian of Evolutionary Theory! He missed a lot of things, mainly because he lived over a century ago! Besides, evolutionary biology has yet to be complete, and other applications of evolutionary theory are still young.

So what are some frontier areas of evolutionary questions? Of course there's still piles and piles of questions in biology - we barely understand a thing still. But it's happening. Now we have a decent idea of how characters may be inherited, at least genetic ones anyway. Cortical and cytoplasmic inheritance are still poorly understood, especially in fascinating cases like the heritable ciliary row inversion case in Paramecium (Beisson & Sonneborn 1965 PNAS, free access), where surgically altering cortical organisation results in it actually being inherited further and further, despite a lack of genomic alterations. The mechanisms behind this peculiar case are only beginning to be understood.

Another 'Wild West' of evolutionary thinking is in the humanities. Linguistics is an example of a particularly successful application of the theory, emphasised perhaps by the appearance of an evolutionary linguistics paper in Nature Rev. Genet. this summer. It's a pretty nice place to get a review in, thus evolutionary linguistics is finally accepted as a field, despite being practically banned until Pinker & Bloom 1990. Cultural evolution is a bit of a bigger warzone, although I think it too will follow the path of linguistics and find evolutionary modeling very useful and insightful. Unfortunately, many scholars in the humanities seem to have some rabid aversion to anything science related. To the point of quickly wrapping up the conversation and moving away upon finding out your affiliations. Linguists are much closer to the canonical 'natural' sciences (what is unnatural about language or culture or psychology is beyond me). Although even in linguistics they've got Chomsky, who viciously opposes any materialistic explanation of language and its origins, for reasons that seem to escape everyone. Don't get me started on Chomsky...

Incidently, I'm co-directing a student-directed seminar on the applications of evolutionary theory outside biology. It should be plenty of fun! It's a very exciting time for exploring these topics, for people are finally beginning to share wisdom between conventionally separated fields. One of these wisdoms that has great potential to deepen our understanding of the world around us, is evolutionary theory.

Anyway, here's to Darwin's Origin and all the subsequent developments in evolutionary theory! *toast*

Some more random links on the anniversary:
Darwin 200 Nature specials (may require subscription)

T. Ryan Gregory has a collection of 19th century Darwin caricatures over at Evolverzone. It's quite entertaining.

Greg Laden has a celebratory reflective post here.

By the way, this has been in my head all day: Happy Monkey!


  1. Happy Origins anniversary!

    Speaking of Darwin being wrong, did I happen to find this story about Darwin the prude here or at WEIT?

    Apologies if I'm returning it ;)

  2. I didn't even realise it was the origin's birthday until it appeared on all the blogs :D I did start reading that book once, but it reminded me too much of Dickens in terms of writing style, so unfortunately I never got through it...I was having a bit of an anti-dickens stage (and a brief but intense love affair with Later Shakesperian Plays which explains a lot). I'll try picking it up again when I have the time.

    I've started reading the Cavalier-Smith stuff as well! Although I've been rumaging through the protist stuff so far, and haven't got around to reading any of his thoughts on bacteria, I will be sure to blog about it when I get to it though.

  3. I only have one book of Darwin called 'Fundamental texts' I have no idea what's it about I should read it someday!

  4. Oroboros: must've been WEIT. Thanks for sharing that!

    Lab Rat: Good luck with TC-S!

    Kaexar: Ashamed to admit that I actually haven't read the Origin. I don't really have the sufficient attention span for flowery 19th century English...


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