You all know about my belief in the supernatural, and this week I have been communicating with Charles Darwin in a seance. He doesn't have access to a computer in the part of heaven he is in (no computers, no rap music, no reality TV - heaven), and he has a couple of gripes he wants me to pass on to the HuffPo audience.
First of all he wants me to tell you that he didn't invent the theory of evolution. No one did. There isn't a theory of evolution. "But, but, but" ... I said, wondering what it was I had spent time studying in all my years as a biologist. So he explained, in simple terms, as great men do. "Point one", he said "every individual in a species is different". "Well, yes, of course" I said (I would have said "D'Oh" but he wouldn't have picked up the cultural reference). "Point two", he continued, "members of a species that have the ability to have more offspring will leave more offspring - fact or theory?" "Well, fact of course, just a tautology". "Good" he said "and if some members of a species leave more offspring than others then the species will change, one way or another, fact or theory?" "Well, yes, fact, another tautology," I said "perhaps you could call it something catchy though, like 'natural selection' by analogy with 'artificial selection'". "I'll think about it" he chuckled, "might attract media attention that way". And then he said, with the air of a magician, "Point four, if two populations of a species are separated so they can't interbreed, and both continue to change, separately, then eventually they will become so different they will no longer be able to breed if they do meet again". I was ready for him this time "Another tautology" I said.
"So that's it" he said. I looked puzzled. "Look", he said patiently, "everyone knew that species changed over time, all I did was to point out that given those four facts species had no CHOICE but to change over time. No one else except Alfred Wallace had put two and two together to make four. No theory of evolution, just observation and tautology." "But then why do they keep talking about the theory of evolution?" "It should be THEORIES of evolution", he growled, "and all that came later. Other people, thousands of other people, began researching how the different parts of the evolutionary process worked in practice. Long after I was dead, Mendel discovered that genes were the way variation got inherited, and later still Franklin, Watson and Crick discovered that DNA was what genes were made of. There was work on the mechanism of mutations, including the new-fangled radiation. Others worked out how populations got isolated and why they stopped interbreeding, others still produced population biology theories, or looked at whether change occurred in a steady way or abruptly."
"You see there has been massive work in biology since my time" he added, wistfully "I would love to have been part of working out theories about how it all fitted together, but I am only remembered for spotting tautologies". And that's where the seance ended. No more words from the great man. I would have told him that tautologies they might be, but only he and Alfred had been smart enough to spot them. And I might have told him that the abysmal "intelligent design" had reared its ugly head again, just as it did in 1800 through the foolish and religious William Paley. A man whose work had been so thoroughly discredited by Darwin that it didn't emerge again until it suited the career prospects of some evangelicals in America 200 years later.
And I might, or might not, have told him that those same evangelicals were so ignorant of biology that they asked questions like "Who would you rather believe, God or Darwin", and used the word Darwinism both as a curse and as a synonym for evolution. They really believe that one man, Charles Darwin, dared to challenge god, and that's all there is to it. He would be angry about that, might have smashed the table. "No, no" he would have said "Evolution is a fact, not a theory. And theories about the way evolution works in detail have been developed by tens of thousands of biologists in the last 150 years. These evangelicals must be as ignorant now as they were in my day."
"More ignorant, Charles" I would have said "more ignorant I am afraid, the world has gone backwards in scientific understanding since 1859." But I'm glad he wasn't there to hear me say those things.
Charles Darwin said, before he died, "The fact of evolution is the backbone of biology". "Of course it is Charles", we say on The Watermelon Blog.