The Timeless Relevance of Charles Darwin

by David Lampe, Ph.D.

This Saturday, February 12, marks the birthday of Charles Darwin.  He was born in 1809, on the same day in the same year as Abraham Lincoln, for whatever that little tidbit is worth.  Darwin dropped out of medical school and entered Cambridge University in the divinity track, graduated, but escaped ordination to the Anglican priesthood by becoming the naturalist on the HMS Beagle, a ship assigned to make maps of the South American coastline.  Darwin visited tropical, temperate, antarctic, montane, and island South America and arrived back home convinced that species were not immutable creations, but entities that changed.  He spent the next 20 years gathering evidence to prove his point.  Incidentally, Darwin avoided a paying job by marrying his rich first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, and could thus afford the time to be a gentleman scientist.  

In 1859, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, where he laid out the evidence that evolution had occurred.  More importantly, he described a mechanism for it that he called “natural selection”.  Basically, individuals that contain traits that make them better able to survive and reproduce than other members of the population leave more offspring (I.e., they are more fit), these traits become more common generation after generation, and the whole population subsequently evolves.  These changes ultimately result in new species being formed thus generating the amazing diversity of life we see on earth.  Darwin’s basic framework remains intact and forms the theoretical basis for all of biology.  Indeed, it would be impossible to understand, for example, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic without evolutionary insights.  Even the way we visually describe the evolving viral strains (through ”phylogenetic trees” that show relationships) we owe to Darwin.  Good ideas are timeless, and that is especially true for evolution by natural selection.

Dr. Lampe is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the Duquesne University Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Science in Pittsburgh.

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