Thursday, November 15, 2007

More Than Karl Marx or John Stuart Mill: Charles Darwin, The Great Liberator

Westminster Abbey is a Gothic and cavernous place of cloisters, chambers, nooks and crannies that has served as Britain's royal crowning-place and national ossuary since the time of William the Conqueror, a thousand years ago. Adjacent to the House of Commons in London, the abbey, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is filled with statues of generals, monuments to statesmen, poets and martyrs, and the chest-tombs of dead kings and queens.

There is also a humble white-marble slab, on the floor of the north side of the nave, near the quire. It's easy to miss because it's in a kind of corner, where it's dark, and it's also almost in the shadow of a garishly splendid monument to Sir Isaac Newton, which tends to hold the visitor's attention. But if you look for it you'll find it easily enough.

Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882.

No stirring elegy. No moving psalm.

Just that.

I'd gone to see that marble slab recently, partly because I just never had, and partly because it had been occurring to me for some while that of all the great thinkers among the Enlightenment's first-born, from John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx, there was no one whose star still shines as bright in the firmament as Darwin's. Of them all, Darwin remains indispensible.

That's how I slide my may way into an essay I wrote for this week's Georgia Straight about the labours of Peter and Rosemary Grant, two evolutionary biologists who won the coveted Balzan Prize in 2005. The prize is equal in prestige to the Nobel, and the Grants, a husband and wife team, won it for their work with Darwin's finches, in the Galapagos Islands.

The Grants put in 35 field seasons to show, by the evidence of voluminous data acquired by painstaking and meticulous labour, what Darwin could only surmise. Evolution by natural selection was indeed "just a theory" in Darwin's day. It isn't anymore. It's demonstrable, proved, tested and revealed.

And so Darwin prevails. Evolution is driven by hybridization, and by sex selection, but the main engine is natural selection. It's how the earth ended up so rich in the diversity and abundance of life. It's evidence against the founding texts of all the world's great religions. It's evidence for life as a phenomenon that is constantly changing, constantly innovating, all on its own.

It's a rational explanation, subject to testable hypotheses. It's free for the asking and available to everyone, regardless of culture or class. It can account for everything from the virulence of diseases to the complexity of the human eye to the origin of humankind itself. No stirring elegy. No moving psalm.

Darwin prevails.


Blogger Jura Watchmaker said...

That's a very nice article in Georgia Straight.

10:04 AM  
Blogger The Plump said...

And Darwin's impact was deeply political too, not just in the regretful misreadings of Social Darwinism, but more interestingly in Kropotkin's notion of Mutual Aid

1:37 AM  

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