Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Grander View of Life

The Origin of SpeciesThe Origin of Species
by Charles Darwin

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows...There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whiles this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” ― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

HMS Beagle embarked for South America with Charles Darwin on board on May 11th in 1829. Thirty years later he published The Origin of Species where he began by laying out the main principles of his theory of natural selection in the early chapters. However, Darwin devotes most of the book to defending his theory against criticisms and presenting detailed examples of how natural selection occurs. The geological record is a formidable impediment to Darwin’s theory, as the existing fossil record does not provide the “missing links” in the chains of descent that Darwin proposes. In response, Darwin argues that the geological record is imperfect and that many fossil remains have been destroyed by changes in the earth or have yet to be discovered.
Darwin also attempts to explain how variations occur in species, driving natural selection and the creation of new species. Geographical isolation is a key component of Darwin’s theory. Darwin hypothesizes that because all species originated from one or a few original beings, species needed modes of transportation to migrate between geographical areas throughout the world. Barriers such as oceans and mountain ranges restrict the ability of organisms to migrate, and the few that manage to do so play a large role in shaping the evolution of species on islands and in geographically isolated areas. Geographical isolation accounts for the plethora of unique species on islands, as well as the wider distribution of species across continents.
Darwin’s theory challenged not only the prevailing view of the independent creation of species but also larger claims of religion and science. Darwin explicitly denied the validity of natural theology, which posited that species’ adaptations to their environments was proof of their “intelligent design” by a creator. It was natural selection, not independent creation, that resulted in these adaptations, Darwin argued. Moreover, Darwin’s use of scientific methodology to prove his theory amounted to an explicit critique of naturalists who would attempt to ignore the scientific validity of his theory because of its controversial nature. While the text of The Origin of Species did leave room for religious theology, Darwin’s overall commitment to scientific rationale rather than theological reasoning pitted him against religious doctrine.
Darwin’s text sold out on the day it was published in 1859 and created both friends and enemies of the theories discussed still to this day. There have been modifications of Darwin's theory of the origin of species (notably the Mendellian synthesis that incorporated genetics into the theory), but it stands to this day as the foundation of our understanding of the evolution. Surprisingly the only time evolution is specifically mentioned is in the last paragraph of the book.
This is a great book for anyone who wants to read a classic text of science.

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