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Why Darwin was right

Why Darwin was right—and why it matters

A talk given before the Friendship Fellowship at Pineda, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, on Feb. 15, 2009. (This is a revised and updated version of a talk originally delivered at the Space Coast Freethought Association meeting on Feb. 5, 2006)

By George A. Ricker


Charles Robert Darwin was born on Feb. 12, 1809—the same date as Abraham Lincoln—and published The Origin of Species 50 years later. Neither science nor religion has been the same since.

Today I’m going to talk about Darwin and why he was right. I’m also going to talk about why it matters.

But before we begin, I must offer this caveat. I am not a scientist. Most of what I know about the theory of evolution, Darwin, and so on, comes from a lifetime of reading and study, much of it during the last 30 years.

What follows represents my understanding of these matters. I’ve been as accurate and as careful as I know how to be, but I make no claim of expertise in this area and expect no one to take my word for anything. My hope is that what I have to say will pique your interest and cause you to launch your own investigation. Toward that end I’ve assembled a small sampling of books and web sites that may prove helpful to you in undertaking such a study.

It’s also important to recognize that much has changed since Darwin first proposed his theory of natural selection 150 years ago. At the same time we recognize Darwin’s genius, we also must recognize that evolutionary theory, as it exists today, is far more sophisticated and is supported by a much broader array of evidence than was true in Darwin’s day.

While we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we do not worship the man or his theory. Evolution is not a religion. If we accept it as the best current explanation for the shape of life on this planet, our acceptance must never be uncritical. Scientists do not shrink from criticism of evolutionary theory, and they do not fear honest inquiry, They welcome it.

I’m going to begin by talking about what philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls “Darwin’s dangerous idea” in a book with that title. Then I’ll discuss why modern biology thinks he was right. Finally, I’ll say a few words about why it matters.

I. Darwin’s ‘dangerous’ idea

Darwin’s idea was not about cosmology or the origins of life. He offered no cosmological theories and did very little speculation about how life began. His theory took life’s beginning as a given and went from there. Theories about the origins of life are called abiogenesis. Attacks on Darwin’s theory that raise either cosmological objections or questions about how life began are not valid. Certainly, these are legitimate areas of inquiry, but they have nothing to do with Darwin or his theory.

Darwin’s idea also wasn’t about theology. He did not set out to prove or disprove anything about the existence of a deity. While there is no question his discoveries had implications for religion—his own awareness of those implications was one of the factors that led him to hold back on the release of his idea to the general public, it does not follow that Darwin disproved “God” or attacked religion.

It also wasn’t evolution—at least, not strictly speaking. The idea that life had evolved had been around long before Darwin. In fact he began the second edition of “The Origin of Species” with a recapitulation of modern thinking on the subject, prior to the publication of the first edition of his own work. In that brief historical sketch, he noted the theories of Lamarck and others, including his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who thought living organisms had evolved but had described no satisfactory mechanism for such change.

Darwin would correct that deficiency with a brilliant insight—one that he shared with another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently reached the same conclusion. Indeed, it would be Wallace’s letter to Darwin that prompted the older man to finally publish the theory on which he had been working for decades.

Certainly, Darwin’s idea did not appear in a vacuum. He did not suddenly shout “eureka” and announce his discovery to the world. It was an idea—or more properly, a collection of connected ideas—conceived in a cultural milieu that had a strong influence on his thinking.

One of the books Darwin had read during his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle was Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Lyell’s work—building on that of the pioneering Scottish geologist James Hutton—put forth the thesis that the very same processes at work shaping the earth’s surface today had always been at work and accounted for the features of the geological landscape. Among other things, this idea, which came to be called uniformitarianism, suggested the earth was much older than was commonly supposed at the time.

Darwin’s observations while on the Beagle—a voyage which took the better part of five years—would spark his interest in the subject that would occupy him for the rest of his life: how to account for the tremendous diversity of living organisms and the differences between those which were alive today and those that had populated the earth in ages past. Was it simply the creation of a deity with “an inordinate fondness for beatles”—as the biologist JBS Haldane is said to have remarked—or was there some natural principle at work?

While on his voyage, Darwin collected a huge number of fossils and plant and animal specimens. He made numerous observations. At that time his interest was far-ranging. He was interested not only in the flora and fauna of the lands he visited but also in their geology.

After returning to England, Darwin supplemented the many observations he already had made with a study of domestic animal breeding and plant propagation. That each species had tremendous potential for variation was evident from the results that could be seen in those efforts. The farmer or dog breeder or horticulturist achieved those results by selectively breeding the individuals most likely to produce offspring with the desired characteristics.

All of this, combined with observations and experiments carried out, first, in London and later at his workshop/laboratory at Down House, where he and his wife, Emma, lived and raised their family, convinced Darwin of the tremendous potential for variation among living organisms and the mutability of species.

Another influence on Darwin’s thinking was Thomas Malthus’ 1798 work, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus had suggested that population increases geometrically while available food supplies increase arithmetically. Consequently, populations, left to their own devices would be constantly outstripping their resources. In human history, the agents of war, famine and pestilence had been most responsible for keeping populations in check in the struggle to live.

Darwin knew the same struggle occurred in the other species as well. He had marveled at nature’s profligacy. All organisms were engaged in a constant effort to sustain themselves. There was competition for available resources and there were many casualties along the way.

Essentially, Darwin’s idea requires three things: a reproducing population, variation among the organisms in that population, and time. What inevitably will happen, Darwin saw, is that those individuals with variations that give them any sort of edge in the struggle to survive will be more successful in living and reproducing themselves, therefore passing on the traits that made them successful to their progeny. Those that were not so favored would be less successful.

Darwin summarized his idea this way:

"If under changing conditions of life organic beings present individual differences in almost every part of their structure, and this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to their geometrical rate of increase, a severe struggle for life at some age, season, or year, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of life, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution and habits, to be advantageous to them, it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variations had ever occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same manner as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being ever do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance, these will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection." (Origin, page 107)

Just as humans selectively bred species of plants and animals to produce variations that would satisfy their requirements, Darwin theorized, so conditions in nature favored those variations that gave individual organisms an advantage in the struggle to live and reproduce in the environment in which they found themselves.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett calls natural selection an algorithm, a term he borrows from computer programming, which refers to a set of instructions aimed at accomplishing a single task. An algorithm is a process that is mindless and automatic. And if the necessary conditions are met, the algorithm always works.

Here’s what evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyma has to say:

"In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions."
Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

The process of adaptive modification of populations over time applies to all organisms. The evidence for it is indisputable. Even the folks in the Creation Science, or Intelligent Design, movement concede that such evolution occurs. They call it “microevolution.”

It’s “macroevolution” that never happens, they say. “You never see one species turning into another.”

And they are right. You don’t. One of the most common misconceptions about evolution is the idea of one species turning into another species. What really happens is descent through adaptive modification over time. Some populations prosper, others don’t. Over time, as populations become isolated from one another, the process continues until they do, indeed, evolve into different species. But at no point in that process do parents belonging to one species produce offspring that belong to a different species.

Stripped of all the terminology, evolution is simply change over time and the process that appears to direct it, in the biological realm at least, is natural selection, Darwin’s idea.

Darwin also thought all organisms were related and shared a common ancestry. He noted that once some species had begun to reproduce sexually, sexual selection became an important part of natural selection and accounted for a considerable amount of diversity. All of these were part of the matrix of ideas that would come to be called the theory of evolution.

But at its core was the idea of natural selection.

When Thomas Henry Huxley—the scientist who would come to be known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” because of his public defense of the older man’s work—first read Darwin’s theory, he recalls (in one of his letters) that he exclaimed to himself, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”

What Darwin could give no satisfactory account of was the source of the variations that made natural selection possible.

Like most of the biologists of his day, Darwin thought each parent contributed characteristics to their offspring and those characteristics were blended in following generations. He wrote of pangenes and even proposed, halfheartedly at best, a theory called pangenesis. The problem with this approach, of course, was that if characteristics blended from generation to generation, then the potential for variation would be diminished rather than increased.

Unbeknownst to Darwin, experiments in plant hybridization being conducted by an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel would ultimately supply the answer to the weakness in the British naturalist’s theory.

In Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (Second Revised Edition, published by Doubleday & Company, 1982), Isaac Asimov writes, “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection had one overwhelming weakness. Darwin envisioned natural variations arising in each generation of a species, and natural selection seizing upon those variations to preserve the good and doom the bad. But the action of natural selection was slow and if, in the meantime, through unrestricted and random mating, the varying characteristics melted into intermediacy, upon what would natural selection exert its effect. Mendel’s discovery that varying characteristics did not blend but remained distinct showed that natural selection could work slowly and still effectively upon natural variation. Mendel might have noted this, for he had read Darwin’s Origin of Species and was even interested enough to annotate his copy. Nevertheless, when the time came for him to write up his experiments, he never mentioned Darwin.” (p 418-19)

According to The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity’s Search for Its Origins by Richard Milner (published by Facts on File, 1990), Mendel’s experiments in plant hybridization lasted about 15 years, ending after he was appointed abbot of the monastery in which he lived and worked. He was 46 at the time. After his death in 1884, his successor had Mendel’s experimental garden destroyed and all his notebooks, papers and scientific records burned.

Milner writes, “Mendel’s only claim on the world’s attention was the single published paper of 1865 in an obscure journal of natural history, which had remained unknown during his lifetime.”

“Mendel’s Laws” were not explicitly stated in that paper but were read into his work by his rediscoverers, Milner states. Nonetheless his groundbreaking work with the hybridization of peas and the transmission of inherited traits provided key insights in the development of modern genetic theories.

In a sense, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a bit like Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift. Like Darwin, Wegener had studied huge amounts of evidence from around the world before coming to the startling conclusion that all the world’s continent’s once were joined together and had been drifting apart for the past 225 million years. Wegener’s idea needed the modern science of plate tectonics, however, to explain the mechanism by which the drift occurred. The validity of Wegener’s theory is now accepted by modern geology.

Although receiving considerable—though by no means universal—support from the scientific community of his day, Darwin’s ideas seemed to languish during the the first part of the 1900s until the synthesis of evolutionary theory and genetic theory, which occurred in the mid-1930s. Today evolutionary theory is the cornerstone of biology and the fact of evolution through natural selection has been demonstrated in countless experiments and observations in virtually every scientific discipline that is remotely related to it.

II. Why we think Darwin was right

At the time Darwin was writing and publishing his works on evolution through natural selection, there was much we didn’t know. The age of the earth was estimated by Lord Kelvin in 1897 to be from 20-40 million years—far too short a time for either Lyell’s uniformitarianism or Darwin’s natural selection to work. At that time we knew nothing of genetics. Indeed, the word hadn’t been invented yet. DNA and RNA wouldn’t be discovered until we had gotten halfway through the next century. We knew nothing of radiation, of nuclear fission or fusion. We had no idea of the great revolution in physics that was just around the corner with the development of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theories.

Given the state of our knowledge in the 19th century, it’s not at all surprising that Darwin got some things wrong. What’s remarkable is that both his theory of common descent and his theory of natural selection, which were his two major contributions, have not only been sustained by what we have learned in the intervening years, but have been strengthened by those discoveries.

Writing in The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins states, “We can be very sure there really is a single concestor of all surviving life forms on this planet. The evidence is that all that have ever been examined share (exactly in most cases, almost exactly in all the rest) the same genetic code; and the genetic code is too detailed, in arbitrary aspects of its complexity, to have been invented twice.” (p.7)

I should pause here to note that the word “concestor” refers to “common ancestor.” One of Dawkins associates suggested the word and he uses it throughout his book.

The idea of common ancestry also receives support from a startling experiment performed by Professor Walter Gehring of the University of Basel in Switzerland. He and his team of researchers identified a gene in fruit flies called “eyeless”—because if it mutated or wasn’t present, the fruit fly would be eyeless. They were aware of the same gene in a mouse which, if you removed both copies of the gene and replaced them with a mutated gene, would render the mouse eyeless.

Gehring states, in a PBS interview available on the web, that the same gene exists in all animal groups from humans to flatworms. He thought it was a master control gene that switched on the genes controlling eye development in a given species.

“You have to think,” he says, “that there are some 2,000 genes involved in making a fruit fly eye, and probably a similar number of genes to make a human eye. And so it came as a surprise that a single gene could block eye development completely—both in the fruit fly and in humans. This was the same gene.”

Now comes the startling experiment.

To test whether this really was a master control gene, Gehring’s team took the gene from a mouse and put it into a fruit fly embryo. The mouse gene worked perfectly well and induced a compound eye in the fruit fly. A compound eye! Not a mouse eye but a fruit fly eye.

In a later experiment, they took the fruit fly gene and put it in a frog. This time, the gene induced a frog eye.

Some biologists have theorized there may well be a genetic tool box, a small collection of master control genes that are charged with switching on the genetic programs for various major body parts, like eyes, and are common to all animal species, which suggests they would have evolved very early on in the process.

Going to the dogs

I want to return for a moment to one of the areas that Darwin researched in his investigations. Domesticated animals. Specifically, domesticated wolves.

No I’m not talking about someone who is raising a wolf from the wild. I’m talking about Fido, “Man’s best friend,” one of the first animals that actually came and lived with us.

We now know that all dogs, from the miniature dachshund to the St. Bernard, from the Russian wolfhound to the Mexican hairless, are descended from gray wolves. On average, the genetic differences between gray wolves and your family pet only amount to about 2/10ths of one percent.

Now if you think about that, and then consider that virtually all of the breeds of dogs on the planet today came from that beginning, and consider that the overwhelming majority of those breeds have developed over a very short period of time, you should begin to appreciate the tremendous diversity possible in any species.

In 1959, Russian geneticist Dmitry K. Belyaev began an experiment in which he took captive silver foxes and and began breeding them for tameness. Within about 20 years, Belyaev and his colleagues had produced foxes that behaved like border collies.

Referring to the experiment, Dawkins writes, “Less expected were the byproducts of selection for tameness. These genetically tamed foxes not only behaved like collies, they looked like collies. They grew black-and-white coats, with white face patches and muzzles. Instead of the characteristic pricked ears of a wild fox, they developed ‘lovable’ floppy ears. Their reproductive hormone balance changed, and they assumed the habit of breeding all year round instead of in a breeding season. Probably associated with their lowered aggression, they were found to contain higher levels of the neurally active chemical seratonin. It took only 20 years to turn foxes into ‘dogs’ by artificial selection.” (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 29-30)

One of the predictable outcomes of Darwin’s theory is that we would expect members of closely related species to have a similar genetic makeup. As we have been able to isolate various genomes and analyze the biochemistry of plants and animals, including human animals, we have found that to be the case. There is very little genetic difference between human beings and chimpanzees, our closest kin. Human DNA is much more similar to that of the great apes than is their DNA to monkeys. In fact, there is less difference between the DNA of chimps and humans, than there is between gorillas and chimps or humans. (Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee, p. 21)

None of this suggests there are no disagreements among scientists about various aspects of evolutionary theory. Darwin’s critics always conflate such disagreements into tales of a theory in crisis. The truth of the matter is that while scientists are always challenging the prevailing wisdom and one another and while there are often disagreements about just how natural selection works, there is virtually no disagreement among scientists that it does work. That opinion is shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists and is nearly unanimous among those working in the biological sciences.

One of the best summations of the state of our knowledge (even though it’s a bit dated) is the following:

“The great age of the earth is a fact. The drift of continents is a fact. It is a fact that the earth has supported different species at different times. It is a fact that beneficial mutations alter species in every imaginable way. It is a fact that the environment selects some genetic variations for survival and others for extinction. It is a theory that the processes of mutation, recombination, genetic drift, natural selection, and isolation can account for the historical products of evolution, but it is a fact that evolution has occurred. That is the message of the one hundred years of biology, geology, physics and chemistry that have elapsed since Darwin’s death.” (Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, p. 207)

III. Why it matters

I have made the point many times in other venues and will make it again here today that there really is no scientific controversy over evolution or Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

There is a public-relations controversy, to be sure. There is a political controversy as politicians scramble to curry favor with voters by playing to what they perceive to be the voters’ religious predilections. There is a media controversy as various outlets do stories that suggest the latest iteration of the Creation Science movement, Intelligent Design, stands on equal footing with other explanations of how life developed.

So there clearly is a controversy. It just isn’t a scientific controversy.

At the beginning of this I said after the publication of The Origin of Species, neither science nor religion would ever be the same. Certainly, Darwin’s impact on science can hardly be disputed. His theories have had far-reaching implications in many disciplines, a remarkable achievement considering that he suffered from chronic illness for most of his adult life.

During his lifetime, Darwin published 17 books in 21 volumes containing more than 9,000 pages. Another 1,000 pages appeared in various monographs and articles written for scientific journals. In addition there were almost 10,000 additional pages of revisions added to the various editions of his works over 43 years. Darwin made wide-ranging contributions of new knowledge to geology, botany, animal behavior, reproductive biology and dozens of other fields.

Dennett offers the following assessment of Darwin’s idea, “Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unites the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 21)

Why dangerous? Because it challenges some of our most cherished assumptions.

One of the assumptions Darwin challenged was the notion of a divine order of things, a great ladder of being, on which each rung was occupied by a species that had been created by “God” and at the top of which was the human species, who had been given dominion over all the rest.

What religionists object to is not that Darwin ruled “God” out, because he didn’t do that. What religionists object to is that Darwin didn’t rule “God” in.

And that’s what the attack on evolutionary theory by the Intelligent Design crowd is really about. It’s not about the science at all. It’s about the existence of a theory that can explain the development of life on this planet without reference to a deity. The whole mission of the Discovery Institute, which provides the funding and the public relations resources for much of the ID movement is to discredit the idea of science as it is practiced today and to substitute the sort of science that existed back in the days when science had to first seek the approval of the church and scientists who challenged the religious interpretation of reality might have their work suppressed and, in some cases, their lives ended.

Left to their own devices, scientists, for the most part, seek no quarrel with religion. Indeed, many scientists believe in a god and some are themselves profoundly religious. However, science which must first conform to the religious views of any group, regardless of what those views may be, is no longer functioning as science. It is religious propaganda.

Consider the words of biologist Kenneth Miller:

"In fact, the human genome is littered with pseudogenes, gene fragments, “orphaned” genes, “junk” DNA, and so many repeated copies of pointless DNA sequences that it cannot be attributed to anything that resembles intelligent design. If the DNA of a human being or any other organism resembled a carefully constructed computer program, with neatly arranged and logically structured modules, each written to fulfill a specific function, the evidence of intelligent design would be overwhelming. In fact the genome resembles nothing so much as a hodgepodge of borrowed, copied, mutated, and discarded sequences and commands that has been cobbled together by millions of years of trial and error against the relentless test of survival. It works, and it works brilliantly; not because of intelligent design, but because of the great blind power of natural selection to innovate, to test, and to discard what fails in favor of what succeeds. The organisms that remain alive today, ourselves included, are evolution’s great successes."
“Life’s Grand Design,” Technology Review 97, no. 2 (1994): 28-29, by Kenneth R. Miller

I should pause to tell you that Miller is a believing Christian and the author of Finding Darwin’s God. If you are interested, you can go visit his web site and read other articles defending a theistic interpretation of Darwin’s theory. But Miller is also a scientist of some repute, and he sees no case for Intelligent Design theory at all.

This matters because at this juncture in human history, at a time when our society needs scientifically literate, technologically sophisticated adults, many school districts and politicians are kowtowing to the religious right and undermining our children’s science educations. We, as a nation and as a society, will be the poorer for it.

Consider these findings from a Harris Poll of 2,455 U.S. adults conducted online by Harris Interactive® between November 7 and 13, 2007. According to the poll:
• 82 percent of adult Americans believe in God – unchanged since the question was last asked in 2005;
• 79% believe in miracles; 75% in heaven; 74% in angels; 72 % that Jesus is God or the son of God; 70% in the resurrection of Jesus; 69% in the survival of the soul after death; 62 % believe in the existence of hell and the devil; and 60 percent believe in the virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary).
• Roughly equal numbers – both minorities - believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution (42%) and creationism (39%);
• Sizable minorities believe in ghosts (41%), UFOs (35%), witches (31%), astrology (29%) and reincarnation (21%);

So in the United States of America, in the first decade of the 21st Century, more adults believe in the existence of hell and the devil than accept the theory of evolution, even though there is overwhelming scientific support for the latter and none at all for the former.

Here’s a statement from a speech the late Carl Sagan gave at the Seattle convention of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal) in 1994. He was talking about some of his reasons for popularizing science.

“On a personal note, another reason that popularizing science and its methods is important is a foreboding I have, maybe ill-placed, of an America in my children’s generation or my grandchildren's generation when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries, when we are a services and information processing economy, when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues.

“When the people in a democracy have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas. When there is no practice in questioning those in authority. When clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness. That Worries Me. And I don’t think we have adequate protections against that and this is just a kind of fantasy. There are reasons to worry.” …

“We have a civilization based on science and technology, and we have cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That is as clear a prescription for disaster as you can imagine. It’s a combustible mixture of ignorance and power. And while we might get away with it for a while, that mixture, sooner or later, is going to blow up. The powers of modern technology are so enormous that it is insufficient to say, well those in charge of those powers, I am sure, are doing a good job. This is a democracy, and for us to make sure that the powers of science and technology are used properly and prudently, we ourselves must understand science and technology.”

Fifteen years ago, Sagan’s comments may have seemed unduly pessimistic to some. Today, they seem almost prescient.

But there are other, more positive reasons, why Darwin’s theory matters.

It speaks to us of the connectedness of all life. It affirms our place in the universe and on our home planet. It demonstrates with elegant simplicity that we are, indeed, a part of nature, not apart from it.

When I hear someone say, “But that means we’re just animals,” I can only smile.

“Indeed we are,” I can’t help thinking, “and what a marvelous thing that is to be.”

Consider that in the known universe with its hundreds of billions of stars and who knows how many planets, we only know of one place where animals exist. We have seen tantalizing hints there may be living organisms in other places, but so far, they are only hints. So being an animal is a rare thing. And being animals with these oversized brains who get to do science, to write books, poems and symphonies, to build skyscrapers and, yes, cathedrals, to ponder not only our own existence but what it all means in the grand scale of things is not just rare, it is wonderful.

IV. Conclusion

What I’ve tried to explore in this brief talk is what Darwin had to say, why we think he was right to say it, and why it matters today. I have tried to illustrate the importance of Darwin’s theory, then and now.

So does that mean debate is ended, and we now should say Darwin has the last word? Not at all. One of the marvelous things about science is that no one ever gets the last word. Science is a work in progress. Like the marvelous animals who do science, it too evolves.

It’s entirely conceivable that someone will come up with a better idea than Darwin’s some day. But if they do, it won’t be because they exploited uncertainties and genuine questions in order to plug their theology into the holes in our knowledge.

Statements like “this is so complex it must have been created by a god” or “the odds against this happening as part of an undirected natural process are too great” are not scientific theories. It is fundamentally dishonest to mislabel uncertainty as “God” and then claim one has found an answer to unanswered questions.

“I don’t know” is always a perfectly acceptable answer to such questions. “Let’s find out” is an even better one.

Thank You.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker


On the web:

BBC Evolution Weekend: Darwin - the Man and His Legacy
Lots of information about Darwin and his theory.

Charles Darwin Works
Darwin’s works, including The Origin of Species, online for reading. There’s no charge for
this site.

Evolution: Darwin: An Origin of Species
A survey of the theory. Lots of good information about modern thinking about evolution.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial
A NOVA documentary about the trial that led to the famous “Kitzmiller” verdict declaring “Intelligent Design” was not science.

Ken Miller’s Evolution Page
A theist talks about evolution and the Intelligent Design movement.

The Panda's Thumb
Commentary on evolution and Intelligent Design.

Talk Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy
The title is self-explanatory. A huge archive with lots of information. Also many links to other sites, including those who take the other side in the argument.

Understanding Evolution
An explanation of how evolution works. Intended for teachers, it’s also useful to anyone who really wants to understand the theory.

In the library:

Browne, Janet. Darwin’s Origin of Species: a biography. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006. A biography of Darwin’s best-known work from the “Books that changed the world” series.

Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1995. Volume One of what biologist Ernst Mayr calls “The definitive Darwin biography.”

Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2002. Volume Two of Janet Browne’s marvelous biography of Darwin.

Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004
The story of human evolution told in reverse, with lots of interesting side trips along the way. If you want a one-volume summation of what modern evolutionary biology has to say, look no further.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York, Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, 1995. A discussion of the implications of evolution through natural selection in biology and beyond.

Diamond, Jared. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Aniimal. New York, Harper Perennial, 1993. An outstanding review of human evolution

Futuyma, Douglas. Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution. New York, Pantheon Books, 1983. Written in response to the Creation Science crowd, much of the material here also counters claims made by the advocates of Intelligent Design.

Milner, Richard. The Encyclopedia of Evolution. New York, Facts on File, 1990.
Lots of general information about evolutionary theory.

Perakh, Mark. Unintelligent Design. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.
A critique of Intelligent Design that analyzes the claims of Behe, Dembski, Johnson, et.al.

Prothero, Donald R. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. New York. Columbia University Press. 2007. A general discussion about the nature of science, combined with a review of the latest fossil evidence and why it supports the case for evolution.

Shermer, Michael. Why Darwin Matters: the case against intelligent design. New York, Times Books, 2006. The founder of the Skeptics Society explains why evolution should be accepted and “intelligent design” should not.

Shubin, Neil. Your Inner Fish. New York, Pantheon Books, 2008. A delightful discussion of more of the evidence for evolution.

Stebbins, G. Ledyard. Darwin to DNA, Molecules to Humanity. San Francisco, CA, W. H. Freeman and Company, 1982. A discussion of the history of evolutionary theory with particular emphasis on the synthesis of natural selection and genetics.

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