Charles Dar FTW

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2008 1:30 pm

My sweetie Rebecca* reminds me that today is Darwin Day! I like to pound the pulpit about evolution, but let’s face it, I’m an astronomer, not a biologist. So spend some time today perusing some biology blogs and see what folks are saying about the man who changed not just the world, but its entire history ranging back three billion years.

But don’t go squishy on me. You’ll just be feeding his ego.

*Actually, to paraphrase Carol Marcus, Rebecca is many things, but she was never sweet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science

Comments (15)

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  1. Chuck D - Public Enemy Number One | Velcro City Tourist Board | February 12, 2008
  1. bigjohn

    Speaking of squishy, I go all squishy just thinking about the delicious Italian dish, Squid and Scungilli, best eaten in NYC’s Little Italy. Yum, yum… followed by a main course of Saltimbocca alla Romana and spaghetti, accompanied by crisp, crusty Italian bread and a good Chianti…oh, my!

  2. Well, I feel obligated to point out that antifreeze is sweet, but it’ll still kill ya.

    Just like Rebecca!

  3. Come on, my ego is all-devouring and self-perpetuating, as everyone knows.

  4. Jim Seymour

    Oh… “For The Win”…

    That’s much better than my first thought – a phrase that you might hear some of the creationists saying about what Darwin did to The World…


  5. Christian X Burnham

    PZs like a squid. He has a tendency to squirt out masses of ink when he gets riled.

    I’m still working on a good enough insult for the BA. Winston Churchill I’m not.

    Dawkins once tried to show that evolution is the only conceivable way that life and intelligence could arise anywhere in the universe. So the general theory of evolution is really of cosmological import, it’s not just something of interest to Earth biologists.

    (All humans are vermin in the eyes of Morbo.)

  6. Jess Tauber

    I met CD back in 1998 at the Abbey. Though surrounded by other great thinkers, he’s pretty much kept to himself for more than a century. I’m sure he didn’t utter more than a word when I introduced myself. Perhaps its the English cuisine. In any case he seemed a little down to me. Hope he’s better now.

  7. Rob

    As a welshman, I have to ask why all this fuss about the person who wrote the second paper on natural selection? Why not have a Wallace day, after the man who actually had the courage to come out and publicly air the theory first?

    (For those who don’t know, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote the first paper on evolution by natural selection and, unfortunately for him, submitted it to the journal that Charles Darwin edited. Darwin, who had been sitting on his theory for a number of years, wrote up a paper hastily and slipped it into the same edition. The rest, as they say, is history).

  8. And let’s not forget that Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, was a devout Anglican and even played around with spiritualism for a while. Plus he was one of the very few non-racist scientists of the 19th century. (He thought African cultures were inferior to British culture, but he rejected the consensus of the time that said that Africans were less intelligent than Europeans.)

  9. Kent

    If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

  10. Kent writes:

    [[If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?]]

    Why shouldn’t there be?

    There is no drive or direction to evolution; monkeys aren’t “trying” to turn into humans. To make monkeys humans you would have to subject them to the same environmental changes our remote ancestors were subject to in East Africa 4-20 million years ago.

    And an ancestor species doesn’t necessarily have to go extinct; sometimes a species can split off from an ancestral group and the ancestral group is still around. Consider a rephrasing of your question: If (some) Americans evolved from Europeans, why are there still Europeans?

  11. Kent

    Please, don’t insult my intelligence with the question you posed in the last paragraph. (If (some) Americans evolved from Europeans, why are there still Europeans?) We’re talking two different species. Most people would agree that we are one in the same in relation to the Euros… ūüėČ

    If the monkeys weren’t “trying” to turn into the humans to “survive” the elements/changes in their environment, how/why did they form? Darwin’s, or Wallace’s (credit is due), main slogan was “survival of the fittest.” I pose my original question with more detail; if humans evolved from monkeys who were trying to adapt to their environment that was ever-changing, why are there still monkeys and why did monkeys continue to “spawn” the way they have for centuries? During the time that these changes were happening, did the traditional monkey population dwindle because they could not survive with the new environment they were being introduced to?

  12. Actually, “survival of the fittest” was Herbert Spencer’s phrase originally, though Darwin did start using it as of the 4th edition of Origin of Species.

    Monkeys are evolving as their environmental changes — just not into humans. Again, there’s no particular reason for them to go in that direction. There are monkeys all over the world, in many different habitats, and it was only a small subsection of them in East Africa that became plains apes that became early hominids that become humans.

    Evolution works by natural selection. A brief explanation:

    1. More offspring are always produced than the environment (food supply, etc.) will support. Oak trees drop thousands of acorns; fish, frogs and insects lay thousands of eggs; even a human couple can have a dozen children if they’re not successful. Most offspring die.

    2. Offspring vary. They have differences in size, shape, strength, coloring, covering, biochemistry… thousands of traits.

    3. The variations that best suit the creature to finding food and/or mates are the ones most likely to survive. This was the crucial insight of Darwin and Wallace. To some extent it’s a crap shoot; a nicely designed organism might still have a tree fall on it or catch a fatal disease. But overall, on average, the organisms best suited to the environment are the ones most likely to survive and reproduce.

    4. Variations are inherited. Tall creatures have tall children. The organisms which survive have particular genetic traits which the ones who die do not share.

    5. If variations persist long enough, if you have a “trend” in a particular direction for a while, a group of the organisms might change enough so they can no longer interbreed with the ancestral type. When that happens you have a new species.

    The whole group evolving in place is “sympatric” (“in the same place”) speciation. Ernst Mayr and others in the 1940s pointed out that speciation was more likely to happen to a subgroup of the whole population that gets cut off from the rest, by chance or by spreading into different areas. The small group evolving separately from the main group are undergoing “allopatric” (“in another place”) speciation.

    Gould and Eldredge went a step farther with Mayr’s allopatric speciation idea and suggested that that was actually the norm for speciation to occur; that most evolution was not gradual but consisted of long periods of stasis punctuated by short bursts of speciation in relatively small places — “punctuated equilibrium.”

    Note that in all of this, there’s no preferred direction to evolution. An environment growing hotter will mitigate against thick hair, an environment growing colder will promote thick hair, not by some mysterious influence, but because the animals with the right traits will survive and the others won’t. Humans evolving depended on a long series of contingent events which could have gone other ways. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing human-like would ever have arisen aside from those events, just that our particular chain of descent, like any other such chain, is improbable viewed from its endpoint.)

    Hope this helps. For a treatment in greater depth, I recommend Edey and Johansson’s “Blueprints” (1989). There’s a silly first chapter where they try to deal with theological objections to evolution, but if you ignore that there’s a lot of good explanation in the book. Dawkins’s stuff is also helpful if you can stomach his constant anti-theist remarks. An introductory evolutionary biology text from a college biology department might be more helpful than either.

  13. If the human couple is not careful, I should have said. From the evolutionary point of view, they are successful if they have a dozen kids.

  14. SF Reader

    Kent, are you being serious? Are you foolish enough to believe that the entire African continent is a single homogeneous environment? We still have lemurs because Madagascar isn’t attached to Africa anymore. We have more than a few relict marsupials because Australia has been disconnected from everything else for millions of years.

    We still have monkeys because our ancestors left the monkeys’ environment. The monkeys kept evolving to fit their environment, our ancestors evolved to survive better in the new one they moved into. Or vice versa.

    Yeah, yeah, don’t feed the trolls…


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