Saturday, 22 November 2014

Darwin and Evolutionary Thought: Preamble, part I

I have given a great deal of thought of how to start my much anticipated series on the 'The Theory of Evolution' (a trilogy in twelve parts) and after considerable contemplation  have decided to go back to the origins (no pun intended), and to the man who initiated modern biological thought, Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

From our perspective of a 160 years of established evolutionary theory it is easy to forget the profound affect Darwin's book of 1859, 'The Origin of the Species' had on staid, Victorian society. Intellectually it took time to percolate but theologically, the reaction from the first, was fierce and overwhelmingly negative. Once the seminal message of the book insinuated thoroughly, the reaction from the intellectual establishment was mixed. In science we talk of paradigm shifts. Rarely in science are we confronted with such a fundamental lurch in our knowledge base that we have to catch our intellectual breath and resume our scientific journey anew. Although probably not recognised as such at the time, Darwin's core insight was one of those occasions. Scientists are often, although they shouldn't be, resistant to change and especially to new concepts which challenge long held and cherished beliefs. Scientists are human after all, and are trained according to the standing truths of their time. If there is one feature that comes with age, of which we should be ashamed, is the stolid uncritical acceptance of what we have been previously taught (Flaxen lowers his head/arse in shame). Our core knowledge is like a comfy chair. It fits all our nooks and crannies but intellectually it is bad posture. There is a conceptual atrophy that comes with age and science is often advanced by one funeral at a time.
Thoughtful biologists, of the time, were struck by Darwin's fundamental insight into the natural world and how deceptively simple his notion appeared. Indeed, many clever men wondered why they hadn't thought of it themselves and gaped open mouthed at the man with the theology degree, who did.

Darwin's ideas did not materialise out of an intellectual vacuum. The Victorian era was a time of great intellectual, scientific and technical achievement and before passing on to a discussion of evolutionary theory itself it is instructive to examine the intellectual milieu of the time which influenced and shaped Darwin's ideas. This will be the basis of my next post on evolutionary theory, unless I become distracted......     

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