Evolution: The Greatest Discovery
Updated: Apr 26
"Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the only workable explanation that has ever been proposed for the remarkable fact of our own existence, indeed the existence of all life wherever it may turn up in the universe." ~ John Maynard Smith, FRS
"Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of even Newton or Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. It is not just a wonderful idea. It is a dangerous idea."
~ Daniel Dennett, PhD Philosophy In: Darwin's Dangerous Idea
I would like to make what might be considered a bold claim. Of all the amazing discoveries in the history of humankind, the theory of evolution is the greatest so far in my opinion. Competitors to this claim might include a moving and spherical earth, our heliocentric solar system, writing, fire and even relativity. I posit that evolution is not just a well established scientific theory but an idea that affects nearly all parts of our lives. You should care and understand it.
First, what is a scientific theory? It can be defined as a broad explanation of the natural world that is formulated to explain a body of facts and observations, both observed and predicted. Besides evolution, we also have the scientific theories of gravity, germ, cells and relativity for example. Note that all these listed are both fact and theory. Scientific theories are concerned with the “whys” and “hows” of nature. In common culture, we often say “I have a theory” regarding something. For example when observing smoke coming out of a car engine. Blue often means oil burning where white may mean a water leak. But that’s not really a “theory” as the term is used in science; that’s what in science could be called a hypothesis - an educated guess that is testable. Because the person perhaps has experience with internal combustion engines, the reason is suggested, tested, and the engine hopefully repaired. Facts in contrast are statements that are demonstrated to exist or known to be true. For example, confirmed fossils out of sequence would demolish Evolutionary theory. Evolution is indeed a scientific theory like other scientific theories. Evolution is falsifiable and has passed testing for over 150 years.
The theory of evolution is well established with overwhelming evidence, often from independent lines of study. See here the only two robust examples I discuss. For humans, through science we have learned where we came from, when, from what and how we and all species got here. And that informs “why” we are here. For thousands of years, especially philosophy and religion have sought those ultimate answers to life and yet we now know many of the answers to those questions because of science. I doubt science sought these existential answers to life but curiosity and science have indeed combined to provide solid answers for many of them. Even if some may be very uncomfortable. See discussion here.
In addition to theology and philosophy, art and the humanities often bring forth works that explore what it means to be human. What it means to be moral. Is there purpose and meaning in life? Art and story telling for example often elicit emotions so we can focus on themes that may be important to us. Unless we look at these issues through an evolutionary lens however, they will be poorly understood. How we have morals is best explained by evolution and discussed briefly here. The questions of ultimate purpose and meaning in life are also informed by evolution. Let’s look at more examples of how evolution informs issues that we encounter often.
There exists a healthy and robust discipline of evolutionary psychology. Why do people consistently loose money in the stock market or make bad gambling decisions? Evolution tells us how our brains were wired for survival in the past and how that wiring can cause us to misjudge risk. If our ancestors saw grass rustling in the distance - is it a lion or the wind? What is the best course of action when it comes to false positives or false negatives in terms of survival? Evolution can explain that.
Our enjoyment at magic shows rests on a foundation of evolutionary selection pressures. From our deep past, evolution wired our brains for survival and that often meant mental short cuts and assumptions were the best way for us to perceive the world. These usually saved time, energy and in many cases our lives. But these perceptions are often not exactly correct and can be put to use in auditoriums and on stage for levity. They did however serve us well in our past. Magicians use wrong conclusions we draw in some circumstances to our delight, but in pre-modern circumstances they served us well.
We are a world and nations divided by nationalism. Where did those strong beliefs come from and why? Nationalism is really tribalism scaled up in the political arena. In our hunter-gatherer days having a stranger stay with you could have resulted in your death while you sleep and the loss of your spouse and children. Better to trust blood relatives in your tribe and those who were known to be loyal. It was “us or them”, a theme repeated throughout our recorded history including most wars. Our political and racial divides certainly have evolutionary roots. Understanding them and changing behaviors must include an evolutionary perspective. Knowing why we behave because of our evolutionary past does not mean we are forever slaves to them.
Modern medicine is grounded in evolution. One can’t study human anatomy and disease and understand it fully without an evolutionary lens. Centers for the study of evolutionary medicine have been established around the world. The understanding for cancer can’t be fully explored without a context of evolution. Cancer with its serial random and hierarchal nested mutations, natural selection, new functions arising and historical phylogenetic trees IS evolution. See the blog on evolutionary medicine. The recurrent laryngeal nerve, inguinal hernias, accessory nipples, and many other structures that seem strange can only be fully understood by understanding their evolutionary history. See this site’s web page on unintelligent design for detailed information regarding some examples. Why malaria persists biologically and why mitochondria are derived from bacteria must be understood with an evolutionary background of opposing selection pressures in the later and endosymbiosis mechanisms in the latter. See the discussion about mitochondria.
Much of the “double standards” between men and women can be understood through evolution. Not to endorse it, but to begin to know how to address it. In terms of evolution, women have potentially more personal investment in reproduction. They produce only so many eggs, have health risks during pregnancy, and needed especially in the past support to feed newborns in hunter-gatherer groups. They needed to be careful to choose partners who would stay with them to support them and help in the raising of the child. Men on the other hand produce millions of sperm per day and may benefit evolutionarily by inseminating as many women as possible. There is reproductive benefit for them to be promiscuous. But also a cost if they don’t know the child they are helping to raise is actually theirs. There are competing selection pressures for women and men. These can be discussed in modern societies and addressed but not if we ignore drives from our evolutionary past. Again, just because certain behaviors were beneficial in the past does not mean we can’t change them now if they are no longer for our benefit.
And of course there are alternative narratives and traditions for the origin of species in various cultures that can be tested by science. The same rigorous applications that have produced the evidence for evolution can be applied to other proposed stories of how humans and all life arose. Many of them make specific claims that can be tested and falsified. Billions of people around the globe base their lives and worldviews on these alternative and often mutually exclusive foundational narratives so the Theory of Evolution does have a profound effect on people’s lives if claims are shown by science to be false.
Darwin, Wallace and the Theory of Natural Selection
Darwin - Age 51 Wallace - Age 24 Darwin's 'stick diagram' - 1837
Charles Darwin, who had a Master of Divinity degree, left on a 5 year voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831 at age 22 as the naturalist on board and as an educated companion for the ship's captain. He wrote that he would regularly read the Bible to the crew. By the time he returned after seeing the evidence for speciation in fossils, on islands, an old age in the geology of the world, and in the diversity of life he encountered, he questioned species "immutability". A year after returning Darwin drew his famous "stick diagram" in 1837. In 1838 he read the population economist Thomas Malthus' 1797 Essay on the Principle of Population and Darwin's views on natural selection began to crystallize. He would rush his idea of natural selection into print in 1859 as an "abstract", "On the of Species by Natural Selection...", prompted by Alfred Russel Wallace contacting him with the same idea in 1858. Wallace had the idea of natural selection and speciation come to him while ill with a high malarial fever doing field work in the Malay Archipelago.
Darwin and Wallace had their papers presented jointly outlining the idea of Evolution driven by the mechanism of Natural Selection in 1858 at London's Linnaean Society. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were the first to consider that species probably evolved. Lamarck and even Darwin's influential grandfather Erasmus Darwin had stated so. Several German biologists thought that species probably arose from other species. But Darwin and Wallace supplied a proposed mechanism for it, resulting in evolution being widely accepted by scientists within only a few years. We now know that natural selection is not the only mechanism driving evolution. See blogs on endosymbiosis and a note on horizontal gene transfer recently discovered with vertebrate eye evolution.
Why do most know about Darwin and few about Wallace? Probably for several reasons. Darwin published Origin whereas Wallace continued his work mostly in biogeography. Darwin also had the idea documented in 1837, two decades before Wallace, and Wallace could never accept that evolution also applied to humans. Darwin published a later book, The Descent of Man in 1871. In addition, Wallace became very involved in spiritualism later in his life. Why did Darwin wait for 20 years to officially publish? That is debated still and some have mentioned his concerns over possible religious backlash; his supportive wife was religious. I suspect that it was more Darwin's compulsive wish to support his idea so soundly that it would convince scientists and the public of evolution. He was very detail oriented, and a great scientist. Being a wonderful father and husband certainly helps as our heroes often fail in those categories.
Sir Harold Kroto, PhD, FRS. Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
It's not surprising that the Theory of Evolution by natural selection, and later other mechanisms for evolution, was so quickly accepted by scientists given the evidence and the theory's robust explanatory power. It's also not surprising that it still generates so much rejection, primarily from religious quarters. After all, the Theory of Evolution not only touches on proximal questions of life - why the pattern of fossils, why there are so many unique species in different parts of the world, why humans have vestigial ear muscles and a crazy recurrent laryngeal nerve, why people often behave the way they do, and how geology and species interact through time, etc., but also why we are here and what probably happens after we die. In terms of philosophical, theological, and existential questions evolution even impacts many areas not usually considered as having important scientific input. Cries come forward about "Darwinism" and "Scientism" being corrosive to our pursuit of understanding and invading traditional fields of human knowledge.
I am amused at all the anti-evolution attacks against Darwin. "Darwinism" as a pejorative term is usually used. They attack him relentlessly as if evolution and Darwin are the same, falsely conflating the two. Darwin's incredible contribution was to show the main mechanism for evolution, natural selection. Recall the title of his book, his "abstract": "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection...". Even if it was determined that natural selection was not critical for evolution, the evidence for evolution would still be present and available for all to see. It's not going away. See sections on this web site that include whale evolution, shared ERVs, human chromosome 2 fusion and of course we have the fossil record and many clues that evolution happened as demonstrated with evolutionary compromises. Evolution as fact and theory stands even without Darwin and his mechanism of natural selection.
The opposition to the theory from religious views derives ultimately for many because at the heart of this scientific theory is determinism and materialism. Meyer writes well about this. Indeed, the only rational origin narrative available to the theist that can accommodate science is theistic evolution (TE). I write why TE however may not even be a viable solution for the spiritual, and how their concept of evolution is not how it is viewed in science. The discoveries of fire and computers, for example, do not necessarily impact our worldviews. Our worldviews, from which we derive meaning and purpose, are based at least partially on why and how we are here, and if evolution contradicts certain ones the theory may strike at basic beliefs, many that have been merged into a person's core identities. It actually can feel like a personal attack. This is just another reason I assert the discovery of evolution is the greatest discovery because it impacts so much of our lives. Few, if any, other discoveries have this kind of effect. Looming on the horizon to challenge my claim is AI. Time will tell if it has as much an impact on our understanding of life and existential questions as evolution.
Furthermore, I assert that the best worldviews are based on science, reason, humanistic values, and evolution. The theory of evolution, which is settled science, affects all of us in many ways and produces many consequences and ramifications. We cannot ignore in our search for understanding, in our expressions of art, music, and the humanities, and in philosophy of who we are, where we came from, and why we are here; why we think and act as we do. Science has revealed many answers to those discussions that have been ongoing for thousands of years. No longer will each generation need to start over and debate many of these same questions. It is perhaps a surprise that in discovering evolution science would have such an impact on so many varied areas of our lives, including intellectual activities in pursuit of many of the ultimate questions of life.
"Evolution, of course, is not something that simply applies to life here on earth; it applies to the whole universe." ~ John Polkinghorne