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article imageThe Genius of Charles Darwin

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Sep 12, 2008 in Science
Our modern civilisation owes just about everything to science, from life-saving vaccines over television to airplanes. Many great minds made this possible, and one of the greatest minds was Charles Darwin. We take a look at a documentary series about him.
The Genius of Charles Darwin is a new series of three documentaries made by Richard Dawkins, the man I like to call the Carl Sagan of Biology. Prof. Dawkins is a world-renowned biologist and, like Carl Sagan, a fantastic educator.
Although Charles Darwin is one of the most recognized names all over the planet, very few people actually know why the man is so important, although many people know that he is the man who declared that man is a descendant from monkeys. There is one problem with this knowledge: it is wrong. Charles Darwin has never said that, nor has he even suggested it. That said, no one can introduce this series better than Richard Dawkins himself. He is the maker, after all:
This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind. The idea is evolution by natural selection and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.
I’m a biologist and Darwin has been an inspiration to me throughout my whole career.
His masterpiece on the origin of species was published 150 years ago and it changed forever our view of the world and our place in it.
What Darwin achieved, was nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of all life. And yet, it’s one of the simplest ideas that anyone ever had.
In this series I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and more spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one reason why I don’t believe in God. I want to show you how Darwin opened our eyes to the extraordinary reality of our world.
In this first program I am going to tell you who Charles Darwin was, explain how he discovered his theory of evolution, What it is, and why it matters. By the end I hope to have convinced you of the truth that evolution is a fact, backed by undeniable evidence. And I want to give you a glimpse of the brutal elegance of the force which Darwin realized drives evolution on: natural selection.
The program is quite complex for a documentary. It flows naturally from one subject to the next, and the viewer is hardly aware of how complex the setup really is.
Richard Dawkins tells us that a large minority (around 40%) of British people still clings to religious superstition and refuses to accept the reality of evolution. He takes us to a respected grammar school. "A typical class gets just a few hours to study one of the most important ideas in science." complains the professor. We see a group of 15/16-year olds to whom he tries to explain what Darwinism is about. The images are truly chilling. We see one of the teens explain that he will continue to believe in his Holy Books (the Qur'an in his case, although this isn't said explicitly) in spite of the evidence for the theory of evolution.
Dawkins talks about Darwin's life and how he changed from a rather superficial young man looking forward to an easy life as a country parson to the driven and indefatigable naturalist who created the theory of evolution, and how this helped him to evolve from the God-fearing creationist he was to the atheist evolutionist he became.
Darwin's voyage with the Beagle was tremendously important because it made him doubt the Bible's creation story. In South America, he saw different animals that were very similar, but different. Where these really different animals, or simply groups of the same animals that had been separated from each other.
When he encountered fossils he became one of the first humans to understand that these were the bones of animals that had gone extinct a long time ago, and not as some people had speculated, the bones of sinners who died in Noah's flood, neither just pretty objects God used to decorate his world as other people had guessed.
Professor Dawkins: "The evidence of fossils would help Darwin develop a theory of life on earth far more wonderful and more moving than any religious story of creation."
Fossils and a passion for geology led Darwin to realize that the earth was probably a lot older than the Bible suggested.
Darwin returned from his voyage on the Beagle a changed man. From a unambitious young man who wanted to lead the easy life of a country parson, he changed into a determined, even obsessive naturalist.
He started to correspond with naturalists all over the world. He studied comparative anatomy and saw how seemingly different animals have similar bone structures. He studied embryology and saw how young embryos often look like the young embryos in other species, or even how young embryos in higher species resemble adults in lower species.
Life had clearly evolved over time, but how had this happened, and why hadn’t creatures stayed the same?
We tag along with Prof. Dawkins on a visit to the natural history museum at Tring (UK) where Darwin’s personal collection of bird specimens is stored. By the 1850s, Darwin had become a pigeon fancier. He was fascinated by how human breeders had remolded the wild rock dove into a rich variety of forms.
Darwin realized that human breeders practiced artificial selection in order to create new varieties of pigeons, cabbages, dogs and others to the extent that they are like modelling clay. In other words, species are not static, they can change. In artificial breeding (artificial selection), this can happen surprisingly fast, because the breeder makes the selection. But how does nature select? In the cruelest way.
To show us the reality of natural selection, Dawkins takes us to the country of his birth, Kenya, one of the wilder places on earth where natural selection can still be seen in full swing.
Prof Dawkins: “As night falls, it’s kill or be killed. The total amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to say these words, thousands of animals are running for their lives whimpering with fear, feeling teeth sink into their throats, thousands are dying from starvation or disease, or feeling a parasite rasping away from within. There is no central authority, no safety net. For most animals the reality of life is struggling, suffering, and death.”
This must have been a huge challenge for Darwin who, as most people of his time, believed in a harmonious world, was now confronted with the brutal reality of nature.
He gained an important insight when he read Thomas Malthus, an economist who had written about the dangers of population growth in Britain.
Dawkins: “Nature is an arena of pressure. Of every individual born the chance of it surviving to reproduce the next generation is very very small, most animals die young.”
Darwin realized that even tiny variations, such as sharper teeth, a better sense of smell, can make a crucial difference in an animal’s chances of survival.
Dawkins: “If an animal survives, it is more likely to reproduce, and –crucially- pass these variations on to its offspring.” And: “The race is survival, the finishing line is reproduction. This is what Darwin defined as natural selection, the key to evolution.”
Richard Dawkins reads a passage on page 84 of the Origin of Species, Darwin’s masterpiece:
“It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”
The human species is not immune to natural selection. Richard Dawkins takes us to the slums of Nairobi to see natural selection in humans. We see a sex worker who should have aids, but doesn’t. She thanks God and luck, but Dawkins shows us a better explanation: a genetic variation that can be passed on to her children.
Microbiologist Larry Gelmon gives us the truth in all its cruelty: “I think that in any epidemic situation, those people who are very vulnerable and susceptible are going to get sick and die, and those people who are going to survive are going to have some resistance which they are going to transmit to their descendants.
Darwin had worked out how the diversity of life on this planet had come about, spontaneously and without interference of any God, and then, he sat on it for nearly 20 years, reluctant to publish it. He was afraid of the religious controversy it would cause, but he was also afraid that something could be found that would invalidate his theory: something that could only have been designed.
In June 1858 Darwin received a letter with similar ideas from Alfred Russell Wallace that changed everything. He was ready to let go of his life's work and let Wallace take the credit, but friends convinced him otherwise. Although Darwin considered the Origin of Species a mere abstract of his work, the book turned our world upside down.
Richard Dawkins: "Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is one of the most precious books in the entire library of our species. This book made it possible no longer to feel the necessity to believe in anything supernatural. It completely revolutionised the way we see ourselves, the world, and our origins."
The theory was, however, incomplete. Darwin never found out how properties were transmitted from generation to generation without becoming diluted. The concept of granular, indivisible genes that are either inherited in their entirety, or not at all, was unknown to him. Genes also explain how new variations spring into existence through random mutation. Darwinian natural selection then takes over and either increases their frequency in the gene pool, or erases them from it. Combining natural evolution with genetics is the great advance of the neo-Darwinian revolution.
We now also know that genes can be compared. Richard Dawkins takes us to Craig Venter, one of the first scientists to crack the genetic code of humans (and the first to create a bacterium with an entirely artificial genome) and explains that the discovery of the genetic code has given us the strongest evidence for the theory of evolution because it enables us to show the similarities and differences between animals and plants and to create a "family tree" of all living matter. The problems Darwin had anticipated for his theory have been solved by our modern genetics. Evolution is a fact. Case closed.
Prof. Dawkins makes a comparison more compelling than any other: he compares our genetic code to a computer program (although I would prefer to see it as a series of mutually independent subprograms or subroutines).
But what about the school children? Not much has changed, but they seem to be somewhat more open-minded and Dawkins hopes that they will now start to look around and to ask questions.
This documentary can be downloaded here.
I will review the second part of this documentary series in a future article.
More about Genius charles darwin, Theory evolution, Richard Dawkins
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