By Johnny Waters, Department of Geology chair and David Reid, assistant professor of history
One hundred and eighty years ago, Charles Darwin enrolled in Christ's College, University of Cambridge after a disastrous year studying medicine at Edinburgh University. He was 20 years old.
Darwin graduated in 1831 with a degree in theology. By the end of the year, he was on board the HMS Beagle as it left Britain on a voyage that lasted almost five years, and changed his life forever.
How did Darwin grow from an undistinguished college student into one of the world's great scientists? His transformation can be attributed to the mentoring of botanist John Stevens Henslow and geologist Adam Sedgwick, both faculty members at Cambridge. They provided him with the framework for understanding the world through observation and experiment, taught him methods of data collection, instilled in him a love of fieldwork, and inflamed his desire to see the world.
Thanks to their efforts, Darwin returned from his travels to become one of the most influential scientists of all time. In 2009, scientists and educators around the world will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most influential work, On the Origin of Species, in which he defined his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
In its modern incarnation, Darwin's theory is perhaps the most comprehensive scientific theory ever proposed. It draws on and links evidence and theories from across the academic disciplines. Though scholars continue to debate issues related to the theory, natural selection is one of the principle foundations of the life and human sciences. In fact, Darwin's theory that some life forms survive and reproduce because they are better suited to environmental pressures, ensuring their genes are perpetuated in the gene pool, has become a cornerstone of modern education. Its impact is evident across university curricula.
Appalachian commemorates the Darwin anniversaries with a year-long lecture series that brings to campus award-winning scientists, philosophers, theologians and historians, and a variety of events and activities focusing on Darwin's ideas and their impacts on society.
Today's Darwins are attending colleges and universities around the world, including Appalachian. Like Darwin, they will avail themselves of opportunities presented to them and change the world in ways we cannot imagine.
In the following essays, Appalachian faculty members reflect on the influence Darwin's theory has had on their respective disciplines, and upon past and contemporary culture.
Conveying Darwin to the masses
Professor, Women's Studies and Sociology
Most people have not read the works of Darwin. His ideas, like those of many great thinkers, ended up in the minds of millions thanks to journalists, scholars, activists and others eager to convey the significance of such ideas.
But popularizers have not always been the best source of information about Darwin's theory. For instance, Darwin never said "man came from apes" or uttered the phrase "survival of the fittest," though many attribute such views to him.
Today, evolutionary theories are applied in a variety of ways throughout academia and popular culture. And, right or wrong, popularizers and enthusiasts continue to convey the significance of these theories to the masses. For instance, some breastfeeding advocates invoke evolutionary theory to convince people that breastfeeding and a close mother-and-baby relationship are most in sync with an evolved human nature.
Some men's magazines, television shows and books offer a version of evolutionary theory telling us men's brains evolved in a way that makes them sexually promiscuous, and even sexually aggressive.
There are those who worry that applying evolutionary theory in this way will enable men to rationalize such behavior. Others suggest becoming aware of the evolutionary roots of our behavioral tendencies will make us more conscientious actors in the world. Cleary, Darwin's theory has never had one simple meaning. For this reason, his legacy is important to examine—whether or not we understand or agree with his big idea.
Darwin and the evolution of science
Assistant Professor, History
Given how closely the theory of evolution is associated with Darwin, many find it surprising that he was not the first to propose the concept. By 1859, European naturalists had been developing such theories for more than 100 years.
But Darwin's work came at a time of tremendous scientific and social change, and as a result was the subject of vigorous public debate, especially with respect to the relationship between science and religion. Within Victorian science, Darwin's theory of natural selection became a modernizing force. His contemporaries recognized it as the most logical and cohesive evolutionary theory yet devised. What set it apart was Darwin's rigorous use of evidence, namely animals, plants, fossils, and rock formations observed worldwide.
Furthermore, professionally trained "scientists"—a term coined in the 1830s—were gradually replacing "gentlemen naturalists," many of whom, like Darwin, were trained in theology. Darwin's theory created a research agenda these new scientists pursued in the making of their careers.
For most of Darwin's contemporaries, science and religion were not in conflict. And by the end of the 19th century, many scientists had developed versions of evolutionary theory they believed were compatible with Christianity.
Although scientists of the early 20th century pursued several non-Darwinian theories of evolution, between 1930 and 1960 a new generation synthesized developments in genetics, paleontology and ecology, thereby revising Darwin's theory. This "Darwinian synthesis" set the stage for future progress in the biological sciences.
Darwin, deep time and dinosaurs
Assistant Professor, Geology
When Darwin departed on his life-altering voyage, he took with him the equivalent of a minor in geology. He appreciated the key concepts of geology and understood what they contributed to his theories.
Geology holds the key to the deep time of evolutionary change, and paleontology is the only discipline that reveals the story of past life. Data from fossils and the rocks encasing them are the only information we will ever have for 99.99 percent of Earth's history.
As a paleontologist, I test evolutionary concepts against fossils and the rocks that hold them. I'm most interested in the Late Triassic period—more than 200 million years ago—when the first tiny dinosaurs evolved.
Each year I take students to New Mexico and Arizona on "Triassic trips." We advance the fossil record a little further as we sweat in the desert uncovering the fossil bones of animals the first dinosaurs feared.
But, you don't have to camp in the desert to witness this record of evolution. A cast of Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird, is in Appalachian's McKinney Geology Teaching Museum. My introductory students study this cast, taking note of its toothy mouth, clawed hands and long, bony tail. Most experts would call this specimen a dinosaur, until they see the feathers.
Evolution and our fine-feathered friends
Assistant Professor, Biology
In the 18th and 19th centuries as academic focus on natural history increased, attempts to explain avian ornaments served as means for proving the existence of a Creator. The feathers of birds were so beautiful, so intricate in design and color they had to be the product of intelligent design, argued natural theologians.
Darwin proposed the idea of sexual selection as an explanation for traits that seemed to serve no function in promoting the survival of organisms, and, indeed, might incur a survival cost. For example, shouldn't the brilliant coloration of the male peacock make him more obvious to predators, and that long tail slow down his escape from predators?
According to Darwin, a male bird's bright coloration, his large body and horns or spurs ultimately aid in the attraction and/or defense of a mate, and thus may increase the number of his offspring.
Of all Darwin's ideas, the concept that female choices drive evolution of ornamental traits earned him the most ridicule among biologists. At the time, biologists did not believe female animals were capable of making subtle discriminations among males based on the size or quality of their ornamental displays. Vive le difference!
Darwin at the genetic level
Assistant Professor, Biology
An important key to evolutionary survival lies in the variation of physical traits and characteristics between individuals of a given species.
Just as a construction crew follows a set of blueprints to assemble a building, during embryonic development cells follow DNA instructions to provide an organism with its traits and characteristics.
One of the most significant findings within the field of evolutionary biology in the last 20 years is the discovery that these instructions are remarkably similar in all animals.
The same set of genes that control the positioning of arms within humans are also at work within birds in the positioning of their wings, fish in the positioning of fins, even insects in the positioning of their legs and wings.
My laboratory studies this type of gene to understand how changes in the timing and positioning of their activity lead to differences between species.
This knowledge is significant because it shows how closely related humans are to other animals; it helps us understand our place in the world, and where we come from.
Darwin and the morality debate
Kim Q. Hall
Associate Professor, Philosophy
Within the discipline of philosophy, Darwinian evolution has sparked debate that impacts many everyday practices and assumptions. For instance, most people take for granted that humans are different from animals; but, Darwin demonstrated that the differences between humans and animals are differences of degree, not kind.
Many of our ordinary activities assume it's morally justifiable to treat animals in ways we would not treat humans. For example, some humans hunt and kill animals, but hunting and killing humans is considered morally wrong. Many people eat animals and confine them in zoos, but would consider it morally unacceptable to eat or enslave human beings.
These distinctions between acceptable treatment of humans versus animals are rooted in the belief that humans and animals don't possess the same abilities (such as reasoning or communication) and thus are radically different kinds of beings. Such distinctions profoundly affect personal decision-making and public policy.
Darwin, however, extensively studied animal behavior in developing his theory of evolution and concluded that many non-human creatures possess the ability to reason and communicate. For philosophers, this raises moral questions. If there are no morally relevant differences between humans and animals, society would be forced to reexamine the ethics of eating animals, using them for medical experiments, and displaying them in circuses and zoos. Philosophers continue to debate this.
From Darwin to Freud
Joan B. Woodworth and Douglas Waring
By identifying humans as biological beings within the context of all living organisms, Darwin's ideas changed the traditional view of human nature, and thus the history and discipline of psychology.
The field of comparative psychology compares human physical and psychological characteristics and processes to their origins in animals. Investigations in this field focus on comparisons between animals and humans with regard to the development of the nervous system and the brain, consciousness and behavior. For instance, researchers at Stanford University found that studying the intellectual capacity of Koko, a young gorilla, helped them better understand the development of human language and intelligence.
Extensive research on the role of heredity and environment on human evolution has contributed to what we know about learning, personality, individual differences and motivation. Even Freud understood the importance of the environment in human development, and believed human behavior resulted from primitive, unconscious instincts that are essential for survival. These are concepts he derived from Darwin's work.
Because of Darwin, modern psychology is a more applied, practical discipline that explores the survival value of mental and behavioral processes, such as the "fight or flight" response, which evolved to promote survival in the presence of immediate danger.
Life will find a way
Daniel B. Caton
Professor, Physics and Astronomy
The idea that life will evolve by Darwinian natural selection has become a driving force in astronomical research. Within this field there is no greater question to answer than "Are we alone in the universe?"
Physicist Enrico Fermi asked at a conference luncheon, "Where is everybody?" His colleagues knew he meant not "Where are the other diners?" but "Where is ET?"
A simple mathematical calculation shows that intelligent life should spread quickly throughout the galaxy, yet we have no real documented visits. And the search for radio signals has found nothing.
The likelihood of contacting other civilizations is proportional to how long a civilization survives. War may be the sad solution selected by nature to control intelligent populations. One answer to Fermi's paradox is we will destroy ourselves before we meet "the other."
Yet, to paraphrase Ian Malcom, the mathematician in "Jurassic Park," life will find a way. Life has evolved to survive in virtually every environment on Earth, and evolution will proceed wherever life starts.
It is equally as profound to believe we are alone in the galaxy as to believe that intelligence has evolved many times. I choose the latter.
In its modern incarnation, Darwin's theory is perhaps the most comprehensive scientific theory ever proposed. It draws on and links evidence and theories from across the academic disciplines.