Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Why Darwin's still a Scientific Hotshot

James D. Watson, who would know, writes a great piece on the modern application's of Darwin.

It may astonish those who think that evolutionary studies are carried out in the dusty rooms of museums amid all those specimens collected so many years ago, that the most impressive data supporting the laws of evolution come from the studies of the past 40 years in molecular genetics. The clearest evidence for the common ancestry of all living organisms comes from the universality of the genetic code, which provides the translation between the information in a gene and the protein encoded by that gene. With some variations, this code is the same for viruses, bacteria, worms, human beings, beetles, mice and slugs. The most extreme example is that bacteria can be given a human gene and they will make a human protein. What an extraordinary vindication of Darwin's ideas!

Darwin would have been thrilled to learn that the same set of 25,000 to 30,000 genes is present in most animals. Almost every gene in our DNA has a homologous gene in the DNA of other mammals, such as the mouse. It is even more extraordinary when we look at more distantly related organisms; the invertebrate sea squirt, for example, has only half our number of genes, but as many as two-thirds of these have homologues in human DNA.

Darwin had not anticipated that "Origin" would find an audience beyond the scientific elite, his peers. And yet the first printing of the book sold out at the pre-publication sale, with no fewer than one-third being bought by Mudie's Circulating Library, an endorsement equivalent to a recommendation today from Oprah Winfrey. The book, in short, was a sensation for the general public, and with good reason. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton had removed the Earth from its central position in the universe, although there was yet a grandeur in the ways the planets swept through space, and the regularities of their movements revealed the hand of the Creator. But the position of Man, as the image of God on Earth, was left unchanged by their revisions of the received cosmology. Darwin changed this. Although he made only the cryptic remark in "Origin" — "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history" — his readers were under no illusion of the consequences of accepting evolutionary arguments for the origin of man.

Today, there is a concerted effort by some religion-dominated scientists to treat evolution as a theory, as though that in some way diminishes its authority and power as an explanation of how the world works. Fortunately, the courts are exercising their wisdom and rejecting arguments of equal time for creationist beliefs in schools. We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are — myths.


Sadly, I'm not so sure that Watson is correct when he writes that the courts are rejecting equal time for creationism in school. But I've always found it amazing how well DNA has worked in establishing the fundamental truths behind Darwin's ideas. Think about how much the scientific world has changed since Darwin. (Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, if that helps you envision what the world was like during his lifetime.) No one, in the middle of the 19th Century, could have imagined the discovery of DNA. And yet DNA has worked almost perfectly to illustrate that Darwin was right.

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