This month we actually celebrate two famous birthdays that were on February 12-- the 200th of both Darwin and Lincoln-- and this year is the 150th of ORIGIN OF SPECIES.
The January/February issue of PHILOSOPHY NOW (issue 71) has an interesting article by Massimo Pigliucci (“The Evolution of Evolutionary Theory”) which points out that evolutionary theory itself has evolved-- it is now in the middle of its fourth stage, according to the author.
Briefly the stages are: 1. Pre-Darwin (from the ancient Greeks thru Lamarckism); 2. Darwin and the independent co-inventor- Alfred Russell Wallace based on “common descent and natural selection”; 3. ”The Modern Synthesis”-- Darwin didn’t know about genes, so he couldn’t really explain the mechanism by which natural selection took place: Mendel’s discovery of genetics was used to create the modern theory of Darwinian evolution---J.B.S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, and others; 4. contemporary research is exploring new extensions of Darwinian thought in many directions but the Standard Synthesis is still the basic model.
Pigliucci thinks “Darwin’s chief contribution to humanity” is that he demolished any notion of intelligent design with respect to the origins of species-- natural selection is random in the sense that it is not planned.
Pigliucci denies that it is random, saying naturally selected traits “are in the direction of an improved ability of the organisms to function in their environment.” I’m not sure that “direction” is the right word to use. This is probably just a quibble over wording.
What is important is that Darwin allows us, "To abandon a supernaturalist view of life on earth in favor of explanations based on natural causes...” Evolution is as firmly fixed as the basis of scientific knowledge in the biological sciences as is mathematics in the physical sciences. Darwin ranks with Marx, Newton and Einstein ( as well as many others) who have shaped the modern scientific world outlook.
However, after reading about Darwin, it is is necessary to point out the following problem, at least for Americans. Checking the internet, I discovered that about 60% of Americans reject Darwinian evolution. That is an enormous number of scientifically illiterate and uneducated people to have in our population at this time of world crisis.
We will need scientific solutions to the economic and environmental problems facing us. In our society these will only be arrived at through democratic consent. With such a large number of clueless people voting we will have many elected officials at all levels who are, quite frankly, nincompoops. They will be used by antisocial and anti-working class forces to hinder needed reforms and changes.
Already we have seen these forces at work cutting funds for education from Obama's stimulus package, funding groups who deny global warming, and trying to tone down science teaching in the public schools.
Our society is in evolution right now, with the possibility of a qualitative progressive leap forward. We will have to keep vigilant and fight for every program that furthers human education and the study of science and fight against all those who, in the name or religion (or anything else such as "fiscal responsibility") try to hamper this goal.