What Darwin didn't know.

As you may know, I have be (re-)reading the On the Origin of Species as part of a small discussion group made up of students from my most recent evolution course. I am always struck by how much Darwin knew, not only in terms of his enormous collation of specific facts, but also of the concepts that he introduced that are still easily recognizable. Read Chapters 3 and 4 of the Origin, and you will encounter not only natural selection, but the basics of what we now call competitive exclusion, coevolution, r- and K-selection, succession, phylogenies, gene flow (minus the genes), and many others.

Of course, there is a lot (read: a LOT) that Darwin didn’t, and couldn’t, know. How inheritance works, for example. Not surprisingly, evolutionary theory has advanced enormously since Darwin’s time, and many of his more specific ideas have been expanded, supplanted, or simply rejected. For this reason, it is quite inaccurate to use “evolutionary biology” and “Darwinism” interchangeably, even without the fact that anti-evolutionists use the latter term for rhetorical purposes.

While some have used the (obvious and inevitable) incompleteness of Darwin’s early ideas to sell magazines through sensationalism, I am nonetheless glad to see that others have taken a more measured approach in reminding readers that science has come a long way since 1859.

Here are some examples…

Modern Darwins
by M. Ridley, National Geographic

What Darwin Didn’t Know
by T. Hayden, Smithsonian Magazine

Let’s get rid of Darwinism
by O. Judson, New York Times blog

Don’t call it “Darwinism”
by E.C. Scott and G. Branch, Evolution: Education and Outreach


Can we please forget about Charles Darwin?
by S. Jones, Telegraph

Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live
by C. Safina, New York Times

The latter two articles are a bit extreme, as Brian Switek, PZ Myers, John Hawks, and Jerry Coyne pointed out. It isn’t necessary to remove Darwin from the picture, and it certainly remains appropriate to celebrate his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the On the Origin of Species this year. One excellent way of doing this is to actually read the Origin and to take note both of what Darwin knew and what we have learned in the subsequent 150 years.

1 comment to What Darwin didn’t know.

  • Teri

    Hi, I found you from A FREE MAN’s blog. I used to teach high school biology in the states (Wisconsin). I now have two young kids and stay home with them. I’d like to read more. It’s good for my brain, lest it be overtaken by Seseme Street. I studied at UW-Madison. One of the programs I was part of had an exchange with the university in Guelph–the Institute for Environmental Studies (IES). A friend of mine went there for a year.

    Anyway, just saying hello. I’ll be back to read more. Thanks!


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