Darwin Day

Today was Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after his On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, even now only about a quarter of Americans accept the theory of natural selection. 63% believe that life has always existed in its current form or was created through a process of guided evolution. So in Darwin’s honor, a recommended reading list of books investigating and extending his ideas, some of which I haven’t read in years but that remain among my favorites:

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) — This is one of the most stunning books of non-fiction I’ve ever read, the sort that made me see the world in a whole new light. Dawkins describes natural selection from the gene’s perspective, offering a new and unique way of understanding evolution. This is also where the fertile concept of memes is first presented.

Unto Others (Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson) — Dawkins’ perspective is illuminating. It’s also limiting, in the sense that selection only at the gene level limits the kinds of altruism that can evolve. In this book the authors argue that selection for groups of organisms is also possible and can lead to more robust forms of altruism. The first half is a fascinating inquiry into that idea. The second is about the psychology of altruism and is in my view less interesting, but still worth reading.

The Song of the Dodo (David Quammen) — Quammen is an amazingly talented nature writer. In this book he discusses how the study of life on isolated islands reveals insights into evolution, extinction, and the effects of carving up natural habitat. Along the way it delves into the work of Alfred Wallace, whose independent work on evolution finally jolted Darwin into publishing his ideas.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett) — An introduction to Darwinian ideas, with provocative extensions to culture, morality, and technology.

Bones of Contention (Paul Chambers) — As scientists, intellectuals, and theologians debated the merits of Darwin’s theory, the fossils of Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with feathers, burst onto the scene. Whereas most pop science books take a grand view of evolution, this one looks in detail at one particular incident to illuminate warring perspectives. Unique, esoteric, and informative.

Consilience (Edward O. Wilson) — The opposite of esoteric. Here the father of sociology argues for a unified view of knowledge grounded in physics and evolution.


5 thoughts on “Darwin Day”

  1. I fail to see how guided evolution and natural selection are mutually exclusive. If, by “guided evolution” you mean something other than sheer randomness is behind the process of natural selection.

    I also don’t see how evolution accounts for altruism beyond the level of one’s blood kin. How does self-sacrifice for the sake of total strangers make it more likely that one’s own genes are going to be passed on?

  2. I’m with Ben on this – where’s the mutual exclusivity? I can understand why some religious people would say that their particular beliefs and evolution are incompatible, but for a great number of religious people there two can work together without a problem.

    I’m also curious about the Pew numbers… I feel like this is one of those surveys where very minor tweaks in the language could result in very different outcomes.

  3. Ben — Good question on altruism. That’s exactly the issue that Sober and Wilson address in their book. One view of evolution is that kin selection is the only plausible cause of altruism, which as you say would limit unselfish behavior only to one’s close relatives.

    That’s not the only view, however. Not all biologists agree that evolution operates solely on the level of genes and individual organisms. There may also be situations where competition between groups explains atruistic adaptations.

    The basic issue is this: Within a group it pays to be selfish. But in competition between groups, it pays for a group’s members to be altruistic to each other. If the forces of between-group selection are stronger than the forces of individual selection, then more altruistic traits can evolve than predicted solely by kin selection.

    That’s the short and simple version, anyway. Modeling the ideas precisely and estimating their actual application is a matter of great debate. If you’re interested, I’d recommend reading the book. If you want a shorter, denser summary, check this pdf article by David Wilson and E. O. Wilson:

    D. Wilson is also in the midst of a series of articles about group selection for Huffington Post. You can check those out as well, though he’s not yet to the points you ask about.

  4. Matt, Ben — You are right that I should have been more clear with my language. I meant that only a quarter of Americans believe in evolution as a purely natural and random process, as opposed to one guided or planned by an intelligent creator. I thought that was clear in context.

    I would also be curious as to how changes in the wording of the poll might change the outcome.

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