What Darwin did

In a two-part special for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth Feb. 12, I’ll be addressing how the theory of evolution by natural selection changed the world and how those that reject it hinder humanity.

Evolution remains the easiest scientific theory to understand. Unfortunately, it is also one which most people think they understand though they do not. The root of the problem lies with those who think it a process of random chance, when in fact it is the opposite. Although the mutations from copying errors take place randomly– like could be expected if someone tried to copy a book word for word– the selection process determining which survive is entirely nonrandom– like intentionally making improvements to the book. The goal is reproduction and it is the accumulation of beneficial traits that help the species survive long enough to reproduce that leads to evolution.

This November marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. It may strike one as strange that the theory was published so late. Newton’s theory of gravity came out 200 years earlier and the size of the Earth had been accurately measured (and then forgotten) nearly two millennia before. Perhaps the best answer to this is that few realized there was a problem to be solved.

But what it did resolve is what makes evolution the best scientific theory humans have ever discovered. It seems like a tricky case to argue against those of Newton, Galileo or Einstein. Along with them, Darwin let us view the world and our place in it in a completely new way– one that affirms our insignificance. What puts him above the others is the change in perception he provoked. He saw the world as a bottom-up model, rather than an organization from the top down.

Why is this a big deal? Before Darwin the only explanation we had for the diversity of life invoked an all-powerful creator. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, until one needed to explain who designed the designer. This question seemed to demand a top-down solution, too.

One hundred and fifty years ahead of Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia, Darwin discovered the alternative. Namely that if you have a bunch of small things all trying to get their information into the next generation, with the opportunity for new combinations to occur, the resulting competition will favour those better adapted for the circumstances they find themselves in, along with the ability to adapt to new challenges.

It is a truism that what humans invent, nature has likely already done. For instance, bats adapted sonar millions of years before humans discovered it for military purposes. Evolution is successful because it has so many things working on the problem simultaneously, though none are conscious of it. For the same reason, the free market is so much more efficient than central design: people are free to choose what they want and can each work on problems as they develop.

The bottom-up approach is generally more successful thanks to its efficiency. Does that mean we should try to live as Darwinistically as possible? No. Although evolution is a fact, it cannot describe the way we ought to live. The greatest misunderstanding of evolution comes from confusing the scientific truth of the world with the way it should be politically. Instead, we should adopt the good parts from nature and leave the rotten ones there, without dismissing the truth of the theory.

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