Wednesday, February 04, 2009

In praise of Charles Darwin

The imminent 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution at a stroke revolutionised the way we see nature and our place in it, is not simply a moment for the celebration of scientific investigation. It also provides an opportunity to show how historical change takes place, both in nature and society.

Darwin’s great contribution was to analyse evidence he collected over a 20-year period about the abundant variety and difference in birds, flora and fauna and mammals. He collected fossils which showed that the earth was extremely old. This is the basis of his famous theory of the evolution of species, which he published in November 1859.

While he couldn’t provide all the proof at the time, the strength of his evidence was adequate to show that the creation of life on earth was not down to the invisible hand of God but that nature as a whole evolved in a self-related, self-moving fashion. This process of natural selection over millions of years of geological time led to new, more complex species as well as the disappearance of those that couldn’t adapt to the environment around them.

Darwin's ideas on the inheritance of traits was verified independently by Gregor Mendel's work on pea plants in far-away Moravia in the 1860s, although his work did not become well known until the 20th century. For the record, Darwin did not coin or use the phrase the "survival of the fittest" - the reactionary sociologist Herbert Spencer did.

Since Darwin’s time, further scientific developments have verified his theory of evolution. Carbon dating, based on the work of Marie Curie, can now reveal the precise age of fossils while the appearance of similar species on different continents is explained by geologists who can show that the earth was once a single big land mass, while the discovery of DNA in the early 1950s enables us to understand the transmission of inherited characteristics in humans as well as in other animals and parts of nature. Discoveries since Darwin in palaeontology reveal that Cambrian "explosion" - the seemingly sudden appearance of complex animals around 530 million years ago, was an example of "punctuated evolution" and not proof of creationism.

There were, of course, not one but two great revolutions in thinking in the mid-19th century. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1847. This for the first time set out the evolution of society as a product of the class struggle. They showed how the contradictions within the system of production over time became untenable and gave way through revolution to another system, dominated by a new class. From this, they drew the conclusion that the working class, if it followed Communist leadership, was in a position put an end to capitalism.

Marx was impressed by Darwin’s theory because it indicated to him that society and the natural world underwent movement and change in broadly similar ways, although they were not and could not be identical. In 1873, Marx send an inscribed copy of the second edition of Capital to Darwin, who replied: “I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of Mankind.”

Darwin’s work is above all a refutation of scepticism about the possibility of knowledge. Marx’s contribution, in a similarly scientific way, shows the processes of change in society and the periodic interruption of apparently linear evolution through crisis, shock and revolution. We owe these great thinkers plenty at a moment in world history where an evolutionary leap is required.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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