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Darwin’s 200th anniversary: Lessons still to be learned

Posted in News by Rodibidably on February 9, 2009

[Originally posted at: The Guardian]

The Daily Telegraph called him “the greatest naturalist of our time, perhaps all time”. For the Morning Post he was “the first biologist of his day”. The Times saluted the rapid victory of Charles Darwin‘s great idea and said that “the astonishing revelations of recent research in palaeontology have done still more to turn what 20 years ago was a brilliant speculation into an established and unquestionable truth”. The Manchester Guardian said that “few original thinkers have lived to see more completely the triumph of what is essential in their doctrine”. The St James’s Gazette predicted that England’s children would one day be taught to honour Darwin “as the greatest Englishman since Newton”.

These responses appeared in print on 21 April 1882, after the news of Darwin’s death at his home in Down, Kent. The writers were people who knew the Bible, and they addressed readers who had grown up in an overtly devout society. Many remembered the religious and scientific uproar following publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. It argued, with detailed evidence, that life’s extraordinary variety had stemmed, over an enormous period of time, from a common ancestry, and that the mechanism was the operation of natural selection upon tiny variations in heredity.

But Darwin’s audience heard only part of the story. The clinching discovery of the biochemistry of genetic inheritance and therefore of random genetic mutation – the famous double helix of DNA – was not made until 1953. The mostly anonymous contributors who rushed to judgment that morning had before them only a fraction of the findings that now support the theory of evolution: a theory as confident as the predictions of Newtonian physics at speeds significantly lower than the velocity of light, as sure as the thesis that matter is composed of atoms. They could have been forgiven for their sometimes equivocal salutes.

[Read the rest of this post at: The Guardian]

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