Revolution #156, February 15, 2009
Celebrate Darwin Day 2009
What Darwin Did—and Why It Matters
"We now know that our own human evolution as well as the evolution of all living things can be explained by entirely natural processes and requires no supernatural explanations. But will our ability to increasingly understand life without god leave us feeling in some way adrift and empty? Why should it? We still can, and should, be duly amazed, sustained, and even humbled, by the recognition of the wonders of diversity and complexity that naturally evolving life can itself bring forth, and by both the limitations and ongoing potentials of our own humanity…. Far from being a recipe for a grey, cold and passionless outlook, a truly materialist scientific method, systematically applied to uncovering the actual genuine wonders of the natural and social world, can uncork the imagination, the sense of purpose and the transformative consciousness and initiative of human beings in ways no reference to a presumed higher power ever could. Isn’t that an outlook worth striving for?”
The Science of Evolution and
This year, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Origin is Darwin’s epochal scientific work that showed for the first time how the immense diversity of life on this planet, including humans, developed through natural processes without the hand of any god or designer sitting above the material world we live in. This was a great contribution to science and to human thought, and to the development of the scientific method.
Darwin’s work was a critical part of all this. Before Darwin, there was no scientific way to explain how the incredible variety and complexity of life in this world came into being. There was no way that people could understand how hummingbirds and flowers, worms and trees, dolphins and elephants, human beings and bacteria all evolved out of simple forms of life over billions of years. Versions of biblical notions held: that the earth is only a few thousand years old and was created in seven days; that god had created each form of life; and that once created they could never change.
Darwin’s Great Accomplishment
Darwin himself as a young man went on the famous five-year voyage of the British ship the HMS Beagle. When he started, he still believed in creationism. That is, Darwin originally thought that there had to have been some “designer” for life, outside of nature. As a naturalist on the Beagle, he traveled over much of the world, climbed mountains, studied rocks, looked at fossils, collected and dissected examples of all kinds of animals, birds, sea life, and plants. He compared fossils of an extinct giant sloth as big as an elephant in South America with still living species of sloths that were much smaller but very similar in many ways.
This year, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the scientist Charles Darwin, above. And this year also marks 150 years since the publication of the book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which showed for the first time how the immense diversity of life on this planet, including humans, developed through natural processes without the hand of any god or designer sitting above the material world we live in. This was a great contribution to science and to human thought, and revolutionized our understanding of the world we live in.
Above, a page from Darwin’s 1837 notebook, capturing his moment of insight that life had evolved from simple early organisms in a tremendous branching tree.
As a young man, Charles Darwin traveled all over the world on the British ship HMS Beagle. He studied rocks, fossils, and all kinds of animals, birds, sea life, plants. Upon returning to England, Darwin continued his investigations, studying and learning from discoveries of naturalists all over the world—and also different fields of science. He drew from all of this, studied early theories by naturalists that pointed to evolution, and deeply examined and eventually criticized every argument that scientists had made against evolution. All of this came together in Darwin’s monumental and pioneering work, The Origin of Species, which put together the theory of evolution.
He also gathered and shipped back to England many things that he discovered—including birds gathered on the Galapagos Islands. Darwin only fully recognized when he returned to England and heard from bird experts what these Galapagos finches showed. They were graphic evidence of how a small number of finches had made it to the islands from mainland South America and different populations of these birds, isolated from other populations of the same earlier finch species and facing differing conditions on different islands, and even different parts of islands, had developed into different species.
Upon returning to England, Darwin continued his investigations, and he studied and learned from discoveries of naturalists all over the world—and also different fields of science. For example, scientists were then accumulating an immense amount of evidence that the earth was very, very old. They were discovering how rocks were laid down in layers, with fossils of early forms at the bottom and things more like current forms of life at the top. They studied the fossils of many forms of life in ancient rocks that were no longer around. Darwin drew from all of this, studied early theories by naturalists that pointed to evolution, and deeply examined and eventually criticized every argument that scientists had made against evolution.
All of this came together in Darwin’s monumental and pioneering work The Origin of Species, which put together the theory of evolution. Origin showed that life had evolved, from simple early organisms in a tremendous branching tree. And Darwin in Origin also brought forward the principle of natural selection. Natural selection is a key mechanism which helps explain how organisms change over huge periods of time. Natural selection shows how the changes in life forms are driven by naturally occurring variations (changes) in every living thing—each living organism is different, even from others of the same species. Many of those changes and differences are then “sorted out” through natural selection, as plants and animals with these variations either survive and pass on new characteristics to the next generation, or die off, in constantly changing environments. And that through this process, over many many generations, organisms change and new species emerge.
We now know that life has been evolving for roughly 3.5 billion years, an amount of time so long it is hard to comprehend, but which science has firmly established.
Opening New Vistas
Darwin’s theory opened whole new vistas for understanding life, and for understanding human beings as part of the natural world. But many opposed it. These opponents argued that the various species of life were “fixed” at the beginning and could never change.
But evolution showed in myriad ways that not only do species change over time, but whole new species and branches of the evolutionary tree also arise and develop over time. There is no “pre-set” direction or design to this process. For instance, new species can emerge when existing life forms confront the changing challenges posed by the world around them—including things like climate, mountain ranges rising, glaciers advancing and retreating, and also all of the other plants and animals they interact with.
Early ancestors of whales evolved out of the sea, and then they evolved back into the sea—and some species of whales still have the remnants of hip bones and legs. Insects evolved to hide themselves from predators—and insect predators evolved in turn—for example, bats evolved an amazing “sonar” system based on emitting sounds and hearing echoes which enabled them to catch flying insects even in the darkest night.
A number of scientists—most notably T.H. Huxley—took on a battle to defend and popularize Darwin’s great breakthrough in understanding. Once the truth of evolution had been established among scientists, many other intellectuals took it up.
Indeed, it is very ironic—an irony which we will explore later in this article—that the intellectual leaders of the mid-19th century capitalist class supported the theory of evolution more than those in the 21st century U.S. The capitalist class of the 19th century had helped to bring forward science—and “Enlightenment values” of human reason and critical thought generally—as part of its battle against the feudal order and to establish and further expand its new system (even as it still promoted religion particularly among the broad masses of people). But in the 21st century, as we will see further, powerful sections of the capitalist ruling class see evolution as a threat and ideological danger.
Evolution—powerfully confirmed, still developing, and central
to modern life
Today, from a scientific perspective, evolution has been greatly deepened and powerfully confirmed from many independent lines of investigation.
Evolution has brought forward an amazing and astonishing—and true!—picture of the way that life has developed, including human beings. We continue to learn how deeply related all forms of life are, even at the level of the chemical building blocks of all life and the ways in which these are encoded in our genetic inheritance. The fossil record has been vastly expanded. Scientists have uncovered and continue to discover fossils of all kinds of things that point to changes that took place in the development of life. Some of these include fish with legs, birds with teeth, and dinosaurs with feathers.
And while the core of what Darwin developed remains central to evolutionary theory, evolution has advanced as a science in critical ways since Darwin’s time. Modern genetics has confirmed and deepened the theory of natural selection, as well as other mechanisms contributing to evolution, greatly enriching our understanding of how all of the variations in life come about and how they are inherited. There is now further understanding of how evolution at times proceeds through sudden changes in organisms (though still taking many generations) through which new species can emerge. And scientists all over the world are actively working to further deepen and develop the science of evolution.
And evolution is of central importance to a whole range of things which make modern life possible. Without scientific evolutionary theory, there could be no deep understanding of how disease-causing organisms develop—and how to combat them. For example, we would be enormously handicapped in the fight to defeat the devastating impact of the AIDS virus if we could not proceed from the basic fact that what makes it so dangerous is that the virus evolves so quickly.
Without evolutionary theory, there could be no scientific understanding of how agricultural pests adapt—evolve—in response to things like pesticides. And there would be no good way to understand how we might find ways to protect crops in sustainable and non-toxic ways. Without evolution, we would not understand human beings (and human society) as they really are—as part of the natural world. And we would not have any chance of coming to grips with global warming and the environmental catastrophes the global capitalist system has brought about—we would not understand how the rapidly changing climate poses challenges and even the threat of extinction to many different forms of life and to whole ecological systems—systems that human life depends on for our existence.
Today, “without the science
of evolution, there would be
Today evolution is as firmly established as any scientific theory has ever been—it has been greatly deepened since Darwin’s time and established from many different, independent lines of evidence. As the prominent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Even beyond that, evolution is a basic pillar of modern science. Scientists from all fields overwhelmingly agree that evolution is true because of the enormous amount of evidence built up from scientists all over the world. And in most fields of science today it is not possible to make truly significant new contributions without being familiar with the principles and mechanisms of evolutionary change, and without taking into account the implications of past evolutionary change. For example, in physics and astronomy, the “Big Bang” theory of how the universe itself evolved. For these reasons, as Ardea Skybreak comments, “it really is no exaggeration to say that, ‘In today’s world, without the science of evolution there would be no science.’”
The Fight over Evolution
Yet evolution remains under virulent attack in the United States and elsewhere. Even as science is in some ways promoted—as for example, in the biotechnology industry—and the empire needs to continue to have an elite core of scientists, there is at the same time a concerted attack on the ability of the masses of people to take up evolution and a scientific understanding. All over the country, Christian fascist forces have waged and continue to wage a bitter fight to utilize the government—at local, state, and national levels—to prevent evolution being taught as a fact in public schools.
|Relentless creationist attacks on teaching evolution
A new round of attacks on teaching evolution is underway with Louisiana leading the assault. The Louisiana State legislature passed the creationist “Science Education Act” and Governor Bobby Jindal signed it into law on June 25, 2008. Already in 2009 legislatures in Mississippi, Oklahoma and New Mexico have introduced bills to label evolution a “controversial theory” or require the teaching of “alternative theories.”
These bills in state legislatures are one key front on which creationist forces are aggressively attacking evolution, despite the legal drubbing “intelligent design” got in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District legal case in 2005, when U.S. District Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design creationism had nothing to do with science but was religion and should not be allowed in public school science classes.
In Texas, there is now a high-stakes fight in the Texas Board of Education over whether Texas science standards will require teachers to criticize evolution in biology class. Texas science standards have a major impact on what will go into science textbooks across the country.
Creationist forces nationally are focusing their attention on the so-called “right” to criticize evolution in classrooms—despite the fact that there is no controversy about evolution among biologists, and evolution is one of the most thoroughly tested ideas in all of science. This “right” to criticize evolution is a legal and political tactic to serve the creationists’ long-term agenda of forcing evolution out, and bringing the biblical creation story into science classes. This is an assault on science and on people’s ability to understand, and change, the world.
These Christian fascists are at the core of the “creationist movement.” They have been supported and built up by sections of the ruling class in the U.S. as part of a larger effort to instill an unquestioning obedience and refusal to think among tens of millions of people in this country. They deem such an obedient, unthinking section—one that trusts only in the Bible and sees all of life as “God’s will”—to be necessary to hold society together and accept the status quo. All this at a time of extreme upheaval, including predatory wars of empire.
Creationism not only fits into this, it is in some ways a battering ram of this effort. The creationists’ relentless attack on evolution concentrates an overall assault on critical thinking, on science, on rational thought itself. It matters a great deal whether or not people—the population broadly, including the most bitterly oppressed—understand how life on this planet really developed.
The Christian fascist forces at the core of the creationist movement do not want people to learn to “follow the evidence” and draw rational conclusions from the immense variety of evidence which is all around us. They do not want people to learn that the truth “tells a different story” than the Bible, and see this as a threat to the religious outlook of accepting tradition by faith. They hate and fear the way that evolution draws the conclusion from reality that all life, including humans, came about not as an act of god but through the workings of nature. This undermines core Christian dogma about the absolute truth of scriptures, the reality of an all-powerful god, and the supposed “special place” for human beings in “God’s creation.”
People want and need to understand the world the way it really is. And understanding evolution helps to “liberate the mind.” This has a big impact on how people think and what they do in many different dimensions.
Ardea Skybreak powerfully pointed out what is at stake: “Everyone needs to understand the basic facts of evolution as well as the essentials of the scientific method…. When people are deprived of a scientific approach to reality as a whole, they are robbed of both a full appreciation of the beauty and richness of the natural world and the means to understand the dynamics of change not only in nature but in human society as well.”
Before Darwin, there was no scientific way to explain how the incredible variety and complexity of life in this world came into being. Evolution has brought forward an amazing and astonishing—and true!—picture of the way that life has developed, including human beings. We continue to learn how deeply related all forms of life are, even at the level of the chemical building blocks of all life and the ways in which these are encoded in our genetic inheritance.
Above, a replica of a 85-million-year-old fossilized skull of a giant, birdlike dinosaur next to a small scale model. Dinosaur species like these are ancient ancestors of modern birds.
“The grandeur of this view
In the final paragraph of Origin of Species, Darwin wrote: “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
This year celebrations of Darwin Day, and Darwin Year, will be an opportunity for people to take up and be part of that. For Darwin Day to flourish, for there to be programs, festivals, debates, statements and all kinds of ferment can be an important step toward a society that resonates with the truth, the method, and the “grandeur of this view of life.”
Darwin Day is a day when science is celebrated—and it is also a day when many uphold science and the scientific method. It is also a day to go up against creationism and the attacks on evolution. It is an important time for readers of Revolution newspaper to enter into all of this—to join in celebrating Darwin, and to enter into the battle over how people will understand, and change, the world.
In this year of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, there are going to be important celebrations of Darwin Day throughout society, and 2009 has also been declared the “Year of Science.”
Some websites to check out:
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