Today, February 12 2009 is the 200 years birthday of C. Darwin, famous naturalist known for his theory of the species evolution. While driving to SETI institute yesterday, I was listening to an podcast from “2000 ans d’Histoire”, a famous broadcast on a French radio about the life of Charles Darwin. It motivates me to write a post on this topic.
Most of us know the life and work of C. Darwin, so I will not repeat what you can read on wikipedia or this dedicated web site for his bicentenary. What fascinated me in the case of this famous scientist is the way he elaborated his theory. The idea of evolution of species was first published by Jean-Baptiste Lamark, a French naturalist, in 1800. However, Lamark explained this evolution as due to an “adaptive force” which modifies an animal to help it to adapt to their environment. Lamark work was occulted and criticized since the concept of evolution of species was in direct opposition with religious believes which considered that a god created our universe, our planet, and its eco-system as it is seen right now.
C. Darwin took advantage of a 5 yrs trip to broaden his vision observing numerous ecosystems. When the Beagle arrived in the Galapagos, he observed differences on mockingbird populations from island to island which show that they adapt gradually to their new environment (basically the food available on the island). This observation helped him to realize that the evolution of the species is gradual in time (due to anomaly or mutations) and that a specie which acquires a new characteristic which maximizes its chance of surviving will be most likely to pass this trait to the other generations. Darwin waited more than 20 years to publish his theory. He knew that his discovery will be extremely controversial and he had to collect evidences before publishing it.
Nowadays we remember C. Darwin but few of us ever heard about J.-B. Lamark. We remember the scientist which mentioned a controversial idea and also collected evidences to support his theory. It is anecdotical, but interested, to know that Darwin failed his exams at the medical school because as mentioned by one of his professors he was putting too much emphasized on the details. The details were exactly what supported the theory of natural selection. It is also intersting to read letters writing by Darwin into which he wonders what the origin of this mutation could be. It is only when the DNA mechanism was discovered that we managed to explain his theory.
I am flying tomorrow morning early to the NSBP/NSHP conference in Nashville, TN where I am invited to give a talk. I will send you my next post from there.
Have a great day/night!