Imagine if Darwin could be transported to the present and learn what has become of his theory. What would excite him the most? Would anything disturb or disappoint him? TVOL has polled some of the most distinguished evolutionists of our day and we are pleased to provide their answers as our gift to Darwin and his admirers on his 206th Birthday!

Pleased by the Dover Decision

Darwin would surely be pleased by the following statement from Judge John E. Jones III in the Dover decision of December 20, 2005, against the teaching of Intelligent Design in the U.S. public schools: “The leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.”

–Francisco J. Ayala, University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences,University of California, Irvine.
Author of Am I a Monkey?: Six Big Questions about Evolution

Fascinated by Modern Speciation Theory

When setting up the American Museum Darwin exhibition of the first decade of the new century, my simple answer to this question would have been: molecular genetics. Darwin would have been thrilled to know what we know about the basis of heredity. I still think that is true.

But having just finished my new book Eternal Ephemera, where I devote many pages to Darwin’s career, I wonder what he would have thought about my conclusion that he basically had discovered punctuated equilibria in the late 1830s, long before I and Stephen Jay Gould did in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In his Transmutation Notebooks, Darwin confronted adaptation for the first time. In Notebook B (1836-1837), he acknowledged that he still lacked a complete theory of adaptation, but assured himself that there was undoubtedly a law, soon to be discovered, that would explain adaptation scientifically: a law that involved heritability and heritable variation, but still lacked a component that made the whole thing gel. In Notebook D, he added Malthusian notions of geometric growth of sexually reproducing populations, and the factors that limit such growth—thus formulating Natural Selection.

But still, Darwin wondered, when, where and why in evolutionary history does adaptive change occur? He saw two possibilities: (1) when new species arise rapidly in isolated populations (islands being the most obvious choice)—for which he had much personal data. Or, rather, (2) did species continually change to match changing environments in geological time? He put the choice in a single stunning sentence in Notebook E (1839): “If separation in horizontal direction is far more important in making species, than time (as cause of change) which can hardly be believed, then, uniformity in geological formation intelligible.” (Ntbk E, p. 135). Folding in the language of punctuated equilibria, we get “If separation in horizontal direction (allopatric speciation) is far more important in making species, than time (gradualism) (as cause of change) which can hardly be believed, then, uniformity in geological formation (stasis) intelligible.” Darwin had evidence for adaptive change in isolation, but none for gradual change through time; yet he left adaptive speciation on the cutting room floor, and decided to back gradual change—and began to blame the poor quality of the fossil record for the data he could never find.

I think Darwin would be extremely interested in modern speciation theory and analyses of the fossil record which strongly support the first, rejected alternative of his ideas on why, when and where adaptive change for the most part occurs in evolution.

–Niles Eldredge Curator Emeritus, Division of Paleontology The American Museum of Natural History
Author of Eternal Ephemera

Disappointed by the Demise of Natural History

I think that Darwin would have been very disappointed by the almost complete lack of input into evolutionary biology from Natural History and the decline of Natural History.  There is so much emphasis on testing hypotheses that where new hypotheses come from is being badly neglected.  He would also probably be disappointed by the comparatively small integration between ecology and evolution relative to the tight interaction with genetics.  New hypotheses are likely only to come from genetics while ecology and natural history sources are neglected.  This is surprising in an era of environmental change when evolution is speeding up owing to ecology and not genetics.  Of course, if we had a nuclear war or further reactor accidents it would speed up via genetics too. The field is inverted to what it was in his time.  I’d like to see more of a balance and I’m sure he would have as well.

— John A. Endler, Centre for Integrative Ecology School of Life & Environmental Sciences.
Editor, Evolutionary Ecology

The Vestiges of Darwin’s Sexism

Darwin, the impassioned abolitionist, went to a lot of trouble to disabuse himself of the possibility of errors in his evolutionary inferences, so I suspect he would be a bit defensive, maybe even embarrassed now, about his sexism. His discussion of women in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex seemed to some women readers even in the 1870s suspiciously Victorian and prudish, being not so much about evolved traits but more like wishful thinking about the nature of women. Perhaps his yet unpublished letters or other notes contain tidbits about his thoughts about those 19th century “Darwinian feminists” who turned the tide, and used the new evolutionary ideas to promote women’s suffrage and women’s economic independence. I hope that under the influence of the 20th and 21st century’s “feminist evolutionists” – who construct out of feminist rallying-cries testable hypothetical-deductive Darwinian selection hypotheses that they then test or encourage others to test – that Darwin would by now be delightfully reconstructed – with no vestiges of sexism. I hope that Darwin would today delight in and celebrate the evolution of powerful, independent, competent, competitive, and cooperative females. I hope that Darwin would be more fascinated than chagrined by the ideas and data that show that as variable as each unique female is, they prefer as mates those unique partners with whom they would produce the healthiest offspring, something that it turns out, males do too.   I even imagine that a surprised and reconstructed Darwin, rather than rolling over in his grave at liberated female flies, fish, ducks, mice and people would find satisfaction in the evolution of females (and males) who produce sets of progeny with multiple sex partners and who thereby enhance the odds that their lineages persist and endure in the face of pathogenic challenge.

Patricia Adair GowatyDistinguished Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UCLA and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, UCLA Affiliated Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Distinguished Research Professor Emerita, University of Georgia. Author of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections and Frontiers. (citations available on request )

Frustrated by Social Darwinism

Darwin conjectured that his variation-selection-retention framework might be applied to the evolution of socio-economic institutions. A number of scholars, from Thorstein Veblen to Donald T. Campbell, took up this idea. But today Darwin might be disappointed that this line of enquiry is still being widely resisted. He would note the damage done by the inaccurate misleading use of his legacy in the label “social Darwinism”, which has become a term of abuse against anyone who tries to apply his evolutionary ideas to society. He might want to remind people that “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, and not the author of the Origin of Species. He would also despair at the false association of his work with racism and individualism, proclaiming his own documented anti-racism and urging people to read The Descent of Man, wherein there are notions of the evolution of cooperation and moral sentiments via group selection.

–Geoffrey M. Hodgson, Research Professor in Business Studies at the University of Hertfordshire UK. Author of From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities.

Chagrinned to Overlook Mendel

Darwin would likely be disappointed that his “provisional hypothesis” of heredity — what he called pangenesis — turned out to be wrong. Hereditary material is not sent out from cells in the form of gemmules to be transmitted from parent to offspring. Of course, evidence had already been accumulating towards the end of Darwin’s lifetime that this blending hypothesis of heredity was incorrect. What may have shocked Darwin the most would be for him to discover that he had the answer within his grasp the whole time but never knew it. Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper on recessive and dominant factors in pea plants — later called genes — had been sitting on a shelf at the Linnaen Society library in London the whole time. Darwin was made a Fellow of the Society in 1854 and would access research material at the library during his visits. But the journal in which the paper appeared remained unopened with its pages uncut until Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900. For Darwin to see how close he had come, and how Mendel’s work galvanized his theory of natural selection to become the central pillar of modern biology, would likely be a frustrating realization for him. Though, I suspect he would shrug it off and focus on the overall benefit to science that resulted from the synthesis of Darwinian theory and Mendelian genetics.

–Eric Michael Johnson, University of British Columbia, Department of History and Content Development Editor of This View of Life.

Heredity, not Genes!

We now know genes are sufficient but not necessary for natural selection because 1) genes are the likely product of selection and 2) genes are only one source of heredity among others. The gene-centric view of evolution is crumbling! This is the thesis of Evolution in Four Dimensions, written by molecular and developmental biologists Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb. The book wonderfully demonstrates the interactions between four different sources of heredity (genetic, cellular, behavioral, and cultural inheritance systems) that produce variation and undergo selection.Their conclusion is that heredity doesn’t end with the gene, as many scholars of the modern synthesis believe. Even human cultural traits like moral codes are transmitted and retained within a population via a non-genetic selection process! Darwin knew he needed to explain where heredity came from, but he didn’t need the gene after-all.

–Robert Kadar, Founding Editor, This View of Life.

Amazed by the Speed of Evolution

In the Origin, Darwin wrote “We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different from what they formerly were.”  I think Darwin would be thrilled to learn that he’s been proven wrong on this account.  Studies of evolution in action—on the finches he saw in the Galapagos Islands, on microbes maintained for thousands of generations in the lab, and on artificial systems in the form of evolving programs and robots—strengthen and expand the lines of evidence for evolution that come from the comparative and paleontological approaches.

–Richard E. Lenski, John Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbial Ecology, Michigan State University
Telliamed Revisited

Gratified by Mathematics

I think Darwin would be gratified to see that evolutionary theory has been mathematized.  Darwin repeatedly refers to “the doctrine of chances” in his writings, but the use of probability theory to formulate models of natural selection, drift, and other evolutionary processes came later.  A similar innovation took place with respect to the assessment of evidence.  Darwin talks about evidence for common ancestry and propinquity of descent, but his evaluations are informal and the ground rules that govern them aren’t always transparent.  Here again, making evolutionary inferences more rigorous has been an important step forward.

–Elliott Sober, William F. Vilas Research Professor, University of Wisconsin.
Author of Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards? – Philosophical Essays on Darwin’s Theory.

Pangenesis After All!

I think that if Darwin were alive today he would be most gratified by the discoveries of molecular biology regarding the material basis of inheritance, which have supplied the facts he needed for his much maligned theory of pangenesis. Pangenesis was a molecular theory of the gene, and Darwin knew full well that it was premature (“provisional,” and “vulnerable”). But he insisted that inheritance involves both the transmission and the expression of traits, and that variation is influenced by both “constitutional” (genetic) and environmental factors – hence the mistaken belief of some that he was a simplistic Lamarckian. I can imagine the excitement Darwin might have felt at the discovery that the counterpart of his “gemmules” – genes – serve for both the transmission and the expression of traits! I do not share the opinion of many that Mendel’s paper on transmission alone would have solved the problem of inheritance in Darwin’s mind, for it did not address his concerns with condition-sensitive and continuously variable traits observed in his own experiments on peas. He was already aware of “latent” traits (carried but not expressed) but not of paired alleles one from each parent. Darwin’s deep understanding of the dual nature of inheritance is most evident not in the Origin but in his 1868 book on The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

–Mary Jane West-Eberhard, staff scientist at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and author of Developmental Plasticity and Evolution.


Astounded by Major Evolutionary Transitions

I think that Darwin would be amazed and delighted by the idea that individuals evolve not only from other individuals, but also from groups. This idea was beyond everyone’s imagination until the 1970’s when cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed that nucleated cells evolved, not by small mutational steps from bacterial cells, but from symbiotic associations of bacteria. Since then, the concept of groups of organisms evolving into groups as organisms has been applied to topics as diverse as the origin of life and human genetic and cultural evolution. This is amazing for us and would be even more amazing for Darwin!

–David Sloan Wilson, President of Evolution Institute, Editor in Chief of TVOL, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University.
Author of Does Altruism Exist?Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

Illustration by Joanna Barnum

Published On: February 11, 2015

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