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2006-08-27 23:33:21 UTC
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Evolution and Its Discontents
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/24/AR200608240156_pf.html

Evolution and Its Discontents
How the godfather of natural selection came up with the idea and
why it still holds up.

Reviewed by David Brown
Sunday, August 27, 2006; BW10

THE RELUCTANT MR. DARWIN
An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin
and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
By David Quammen
Atlas/Norton. 304 pp. $22.95

WHY DARWIN MATTERS
The Case Against Intelligent Design
By Michael Shermer
Times. 199 pp. $22

Evolution isn't hard to understand; you don't need to know about
thermodynamics or the unique property of the speed of light.
Evidence for it is part of ordinary life, visible in both the
general similarity of many organisms and the crucial differences
between them. Evolution has an intuitive logic that isn't the case
with, say, Einstein's ideas.

So why do people have such a hard time accepting evolution and its
engine, natural selection? How could it be that in 2005, according
to a Pew Research Center poll, 42 percent of Americans surveyed
believed that "living things have existed in their present form
since the beginning of time"? These two wonderful books try to
explain why such a richly documented and proven theory (by
science's standard, which allows no certain proof outside
mathematics) remains so difficult for some people to accept.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin comes at the theory, and opposition to it,
historically. It lays out the conditions, both personal and
cultural, that allowed the brainstorm of natural selection to hit
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, two Englishmen, more or
less simultaneously in the late 1850s. David Quammen, a science
writer whose previous works include The Song of the Dodo , begins
his story with Darwin's return to England in 1836 after five years
wandering with the survey ship HMS Beagle. (He would never leave
again.) Quammen's book is about the birth of an idea, seen through
the life of person who birthed it.

And a long gestation it was. It took Darwin more than two decades
to make sense of what he'd seen and collected, to formulate his
theory, test its key features, and write it up and publish it, in
1859, as the epochal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural
Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle
for Life . It's an agonizing story of procrastination and
perfectionism that left Darwin in a dead heat with Wallace, a
younger and less patient man.

Darwin made several important observations soon after arriving
home. He'd found in many places a large number of similar-appearing
species, such as the now-famous finches of the Galapagos, each with
a differently shaped beak. He noticed that physical isolation
appeared to go hand in hand with those differences and with
"speciation," the division of living things into distinct,
non-interbreeding populations. He also noticed that fossils of
extinct species were often found in places where animals that
resembled them now lived.

In a series of secret notebooks, Darwin charted his growing belief
that species were not fixed but transmutable. He intuited that they
arose from common, extinct ancestors. But how could this happen? He
needed at least two more insights to answer the question.

One came from the parson-economist Thomas Malthus, who calculated
that animal and plant populations always reproduce faster than
their food supplies grow, ensuring that far more of every species
will be born than will make it to adulthood. Competition and death
on a massive scale are unavoidable features of life, Malthus
observed. The other idea Darwin needed was that individual
organisms differ recognizably from each other even when they are of
the same species.

As Darwin plodded, Wallace was charging along. Fourteen years
younger, a surveyor and beetle-collector with no college education,
he was the apotheosis of the self-creation, courage and enterprise
that characterize so many explorers and scientists of his era. His
teacher was the Amazon, and he learned more quickly than Darwin.
Wallace financed his trip by sending skins of tropical birds and
other exotica back to rich collectors in Britain. Unlike Darwin,
who tended to take one of each type of animal and plant he
described, Wallace went for as many as he could get in his gun
sights.

"The abundance of naturally occurring variation within species was
a crucial clue to the transmutation mystery, unnoticed by most
naturalists of the day," Quammen writes. "Darwin needed eight years
with barnacles, following five years of travel and ten years of
study, to awaken him about variation in the wild. Wallace saw it
sooner because, besides being an alert observer, he was a
commercial collector, hungry and broke."

In their own ways, both men put the pieces together: Tiny
variations, arising randomly and pointlessly, occur among
individual organisms. In a few cases, those changes make a
difference in an individual's ability to compete for food, habitat
and mates. Such an individual is more likely to have offspring, or
at least to have more of them. Over time, the population with that
adaptive change grows. Over a very long time, it may become a new
species, distinct from its ancestors.

Three papers encapsulating this incendiary theory -- two by Darwin,
one by Wallace -- were read to the Linnean Society in London on
July 1, 1858. The rest is history . . . and present-day politics,
cultural struggle, religious controversy and jurisprudence, which
is where Michael Shermer picks up the story.

A historian of science, the director of the Skeptics Society and a
columnist for Scientific American magazine, Shermer lays out the
case for evolution cogently, if not in great detail, in Why Darwin
Matters . He then does what many scientists are unwilling to do: He
engages and answers the arguments of people who don't accept
evolution. He does this with care and respect but without any false
even-handedness.

It has always been hard for some people of faith to accept that
nature's marvelous complexity could be the product of natural
selection -- a passive process incapable of intent and unguided by
any divine hand. Nevertheless, the evidence for evolution is
everywhere. In the last two decades, it has gotten a massive boost
with the various genome projects (on human, mouse, yeast and worm
cells) that demonstrate just how interrelated organisms are on a
molecular level. As Shermer puts it, "While the specifics of
evolution -- how quickly it happens, what triggers species change,
at which level of the organism it occurs -- are still being studied
and unraveled, the general theory of evolution is the most tested
in science over the past century and a half. Scientists agree:
Evolution happened."

With zest but without gloating, Shermer takes on the arguments
against evolution and mows them down.

One of them is many creationists' new favorite, "irreducible
complexity." This is the idea that complicated structures or
processes, such as the bacterial flagellum or the tightly linked
"cascade" of blood-clotting proteins, couldn't have evolved because
only the finished products were useful, not any of the simpler
intermediates. But it turns out that partly evolved flagella are
found in nature: Cells use them for secretion or attachment, not
locomotion. As for the clotting cascade, it is not "irreducibly
complex." Some species have versions considerably simpler than ours
that clot blood just fine.

He also addresses the hidden agenda of "intelligent design," which
he says is the promotion of religion in general and fundamentalist
Christianity in particular. "Intelligent Design is a remarkably
uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the
very point where it is most needed. If Intelligent Design is really
a science, then the burden is on its scientists to discover the
mechanisms used by the Intelligent Designer," he writes. "The
veneer of science in Intelligent Design theory is there purposely
to cover up the religious agenda."

In a bit of his own proselytizing, Shermer tries to show why
political and social conservatives should actually embrace Darwin's
discovery, not vilify it. Evolution has given rise to species (and
not just our own) that value social cooperation, monogamy and
altruism -- the very values so many conservatives feel are
threatened by the secular world. Natural selection, he writes, "is
precisely parallel to Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand "
-- a process whereby self-interest creates order and a
self-correcting whole that is larger than any of its parts.

This last argument -- evolution as the natural world's equivalent
of free-market economics -- is a heroic attempt to make Darwin's
idea more palatable to some of its detractors. But purely on the
evidence, evolution is an idea that hasn't needed special pleading
for a very long time. ·

David Brown is a science and medicine reporter for
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2021-01-21 08:35:18 UTC
Permalink
Post by Premise Checker
Evolution and Its Discontents
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/24/AR200608240156_pf.html
Evolution and Its Discontents
How the godfather of natural selection came up with the idea and
why it still holds up.
Reviewed by David Brown
Sunday, August 27, 2006; BW10
THE RELUCTANT MR. DARWIN
An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin
and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
By David Quammen
Atlas/Norton. 304 pp. $22.95
WHY DARWIN MATTERS
The Case Against Intelligent Design
By Michael Shermer
Times. 199 pp. $22
Evolution isn't hard to understand; you don't need to know about
thermodynamics or the unique property of the speed of light.
Evidence for it is part of ordinary life, visible in both the
general similarity of many organisms and the crucial differences
between them. Evolution has an intuitive logic that isn't the case
with, say, Einstein's ideas.
So why do people have such a hard time accepting evolution and its
engine, natural selection? How could it be that in 2005, according
to a Pew Research Center poll, 42 percent of Americans surveyed
believed that "living things have existed in their present form
since the beginning of time"? These two wonderful books try to
explain why such a richly documented and proven theory (by
science's standard, which allows no certain proof outside
mathematics) remains so difficult for some people to accept.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin comes at the theory, and opposition to it,
historically. It lays out the conditions, both personal and
cultural, that allowed the brainstorm of natural selection to hit
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, two Englishmen, more or
less simultaneously in the late 1850s. David Quammen, a science
writer whose previous works include The Song of the Dodo , begins
his story with Darwin's return to England in 1836 after five years
wandering with the survey ship HMS Beagle. (He would never leave
again.) Quammen's book is about the birth of an idea, seen through
the life of person who birthed it.
And a long gestation it was. It took Darwin more than two decades
to make sense of what he'd seen and collected, to formulate his
theory, test its key features, and write it up and publish it, in
1859, as the epochal On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural
Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle
for Life . It's an agonizing story of procrastination and
perfectionism that left Darwin in a dead heat with Wallace, a
younger and less patient man.
Darwin made several important observations soon after arriving
home. He'd found in many places a large number of similar-appearing
species, such as the now-famous finches of the Galapagos, each with
a differently shaped beak. He noticed that physical isolation
appeared to go hand in hand with those differences and with
"speciation," the division of living things into distinct,
non-interbreeding populations. He also noticed that fossils of
extinct species were often found in places where animals that
resembled them now lived.
In a series of secret notebooks, Darwin charted his growing belief
that species were not fixed but transmutable. He intuited that they
arose from common, extinct ancestors. But how could this happen? He
needed at least two more insights to answer the question.
One came from the parson-economist Thomas Malthus, who calculated
that animal and plant populations always reproduce faster than
their food supplies grow, ensuring that far more of every species
will be born than will make it to adulthood. Competition and death
on a massive scale are unavoidable features of life, Malthus
observed. The other idea Darwin needed was that individual
organisms differ recognizably from each other even when they are of
the same species.
As Darwin plodded, Wallace was charging along. Fourteen years
younger, a surveyor and beetle-collector with no college education,
he was the apotheosis of the self-creation, courage and enterprise
that characterize so many explorers and scientists of his era. His
teacher was the Amazon, and he learned more quickly than Darwin.
Wallace financed his trip by sending skins of tropical birds and
other exotica back to rich collectors in Britain. Unlike Darwin,
who tended to take one of each type of animal and plant he
described, Wallace went for as many as he could get in his gun
sights.
"The abundance of naturally occurring variation within species was
a crucial clue to the transmutation mystery, unnoticed by most
naturalists of the day," Quammen writes. "Darwin needed eight years
with barnacles, following five years of travel and ten years of
study, to awaken him about variation in the wild. Wallace saw it
sooner because, besides being an alert observer, he was a
commercial collector, hungry and broke."
In their own ways, both men put the pieces together: Tiny
variations, arising randomly and pointlessly, occur among
individual organisms. In a few cases, those changes make a
difference in an individual's ability to compete for food, habitat
and mates. Such an individual is more likely to have offspring, or
at least to have more of them. Over time, the population with that
adaptive change grows. Over a very long time, it may become a new
species, distinct from its ancestors.
Three papers encapsulating this incendiary theory -- two by Darwin,
one by Wallace -- were read to the Linnean Society in London on
July 1, 1858. The rest is history . . . and present-day politics,
cultural struggle, religious controversy and jurisprudence, which
is where Michael Shermer picks up the story.
A historian of science, the director of the Skeptics Society and a
columnist for Scientific American magazine, Shermer lays out the
case for evolution cogently, if not in great detail, in Why Darwin
Matters . He then does what many scientists are unwilling to do: He
engages and answers the arguments of people who don't accept
evolution. He does this with care and respect but without any false
even-handedness.
It has always been hard for some people of faith to accept that
nature's marvelous complexity could be the product of natural
selection -- a passive process incapable of intent and unguided by
any divine hand. Nevertheless, the evidence for evolution is
everywhere. In the last two decades, it has gotten a massive boost
with the various genome projects (on human, mouse, yeast and worm
cells) that demonstrate just how interrelated organisms are on a
molecular level. As Shermer puts it, "While the specifics of
evolution -- how quickly it happens, what triggers species change,
at which level of the organism it occurs -- are still being studied
and unraveled, the general theory of evolution is the most tested
Evolution happened."
With zest but without gloating, Shermer takes on the arguments
against evolution and mows them down.
One of them is many creationists' new favorite, "irreducible
complexity." This is the idea that complicated structures or
processes, such as the bacterial flagellum or the tightly linked
"cascade" of blood-clotting proteins, couldn't have evolved because
only the finished products were useful, not any of the simpler
intermediates. But it turns out that partly evolved flagella are
found in nature: Cells use them for secretion or attachment, not
locomotion. As for the clotting cascade, it is not "irreducibly
complex." Some species have versions considerably simpler than ours
that clot blood just fine.
He also addresses the hidden agenda of "intelligent design," which
he says is the promotion of religion in general and fundamentalist
Christianity in particular. "Intelligent Design is a remarkably
uncreative theory that abandons the search for understanding at the
very point where it is most needed. If Intelligent Design is really
a science, then the burden is on its scientists to discover the
mechanisms used by the Intelligent Designer," he writes. "The
veneer of science in Intelligent Design theory is there purposely
to cover up the religious agenda."
In a bit of his own proselytizing, Shermer tries to show why
political and social conservatives should actually embrace Darwin's
discovery, not vilify it. Evolution has given rise to species (and
not just our own) that value social cooperation, monogamy and
altruism -- the very values so many conservatives feel are
threatened by the secular world. Natural selection, he writes, "is
precisely parallel to Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand "
-- a process whereby self-interest creates order and a
self-correcting whole that is larger than any of its parts.
This last argument -- evolution as the natural world's equivalent
of free-market economics -- is a heroic attempt to make Darwin's
idea more palatable to some of its detractors. But purely on the
evidence, evolution is an idea that hasn't needed special pleading
for a very long time. ·
David Brown is a science and medicine reporter for
Is Darwinism the root problem of modernity?:

https://evolutionnews.org/2021/01/darwinism-as-the-root-problem-of-modernity/
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