Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fanfare for Darwin?

To the massive fanfare greating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species Richard Lewontin asks "Why Darwin?" In reviewing four books about evolution and Darwin, he has this to say:
By the time of the appearance of the Origin, the physical sciences had become thoroughly evolutionary. Living beings were not seen as an exception. In 1769, Diderot had his dreaming philosopher d'Alembert wonder what races of animals had preceded us and what sorts would follow. He provided the motto of evolutionism as a worldview: "Everything changes, everything passes. Only the totality remains." Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, in his epic The Temple of Nature of 1803, invokes his Muse to tell "how rose from elemental strife/Organic forms, and kindled into life," and the Muse completes the evolutionary story by telling him that even "imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,/...Arose from rudiments of form and sense." By the younger Darwin's time, the idea of organic evolution had become a common currency of intellectual life.
This is something that is lost in the ongoing debate about evolution—that the idea of evolution was not new by the time of Darwin. He simply came up with a concrete mechanism to explain it by taking Paley's design argument and inverting it. Lewontin's article is an interesting expose of, of all things, the weaknesses of Darwin's theory of natural selection. He points out that, in Darwin's time, nothing was know about heredity. Mendel's work had been lost along the way and, had it not been for the rediscovery of Mendel's work, Darwin's theory might not have made it off the ground. Read the whole thing.

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