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The History of Evolution

by Harry Wang

The History of Evolution

Waves from the vast Pacific Ocean crash endlessly on the rocky shores of the Galapagos Islands. A group of islands in isolation, forced into environmental solitary confinement by the very ocean that shaped them. Despite seeming like a desolate outcrop quite literally in the middle of nowhere, the Galapagos hosts a rather unique oasis of flora and fauna – exotic species are prevalent here: huge tortoises and lush cacti accentuate the atmosphere of the islands, and would make prime biological representatives for the location. However, it is a rather unassuming animal that is the face of the Galapagos: Darwin’s Finch.

What? Where? When? Why? The four W’s taught as part of a classical literary curriculum can be applied to any situation or theory in existence, and evolution, the story of creation, is no exception. The understanding of life as a general concept has long held an intimate connection with religion, often differing enormously based on corresponding religious beliefs. These explanations have always provided a story on the origination of life and humanity, regardless of specific details. However, during the Renaissance, a new method of observation was brought into existence: the scientific method. Individuals began to inquire for better, sturdier examples and proofs detailing all fields of science, and the origination of the human species was certainly not lost. At first, proposed theories were vastly inaccurate, and despite representing a departure from swallowing premade religious beliefs, new proposals such as ‘spontaneous generation’ were seemingly made with more figments of imagination and parallel to their predecessors in terms of lacking substantial evidence. Rather, it was in the latter half of the Renaissance and throughout the subsequent Enlightenment that serious evolutionary thought began to take place; it is at this point in history that predecessors to the modern idea of evolution came into existence. The sparks of theories like natural selection are present in works by French philosopher Denis Diderot, while an idea of an overarching tree of life can be found in the works of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

One of the earliest examples of a tree of life, by Charles Darwin, 1837 Source: Cambridge University Library

Despite the uncanny accuracy of some theories presented during the 18th and 19th centuries, the scientific voyage on uncovering the mysteries was still faced with the same obstacle it had a century ago: the lack of detailed, well corroborated proof that was crucial to even the consideration of such theories. Many believed it was foolish to even think that obtaining such evidence of ‘god’s work’ was possible, while other scientists argued that observing such data within a realistic human timescale was simply not logistically possible. The theory of evolution looked doomed to fail before it ever manifested. Enter Charles Darwin – arguably the most celebrated naturalist in history, and for good reason: throughout the 1830’s, Darwin had seemingly conjured an entire anthology of works on the proof of evolution, and proceeded to drop them like bombs on the scientific community. Darwin had made the jump from being a simple naturalist studying and theorizing about niche subjects such as the distribution of coral reefs to compiling and analyzing the entirety of evolutionary ideology in just under 10 years. His most famous work, On the Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection, contained a complete explanation on the processes that drive and govern evolution, and a statement regarding the continuation and ‘transmutation’ of all biological beings, humans included. How exactly had Darwin reached such a bold yet confident claim to such an extraordinary topic? His book also describes Darwin’s working process in great detail, wherein the famous story of Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos takes place. Darwin’s work not only provided the hard evidence that was so severely lacking in previous theories, but also proved that human observation of evolution was indeed physically possible. 

An overview of the variations of ground finch that Darwin observed.

Darwin’s work presented solid proof of official quality on the evolution of life, but his work was immediately met with extreme backlash. Religious groups that had opposed such studies to begin with were outraged at the distribution of such material to the public, especially the younger, more ‘vulnerable’ demographic. A large portion of the scientific community also regarded Darwin’s work with great skepticism – it was true that Darwin had provided proof confirming many theories, but who was with him to witness such an event? Was it possible to reproduce Darwin’s grand experiment to examine evolution firsthand? Fortunately for Darwin, his theory of the natural transmutation of species did indeed line up with progressions in several other scientific fields, and was even praised by some religious figures for providing an explanation on biological diversity and that ‘natural selection was an instrument of God’s design’. While most scientists accepted that evolution existed to some extent by the end of the century, there was enormous disagreement on the detailed means that powered such change, especially on sensitive topics such as human evolution. Through the raging debate that followed Darwin’s works, a new scientific movement known as Darwinism came into existence.

Despite Darwin’s personal work coming into general acceptance by the scientific community, the mystery behind evolution was far from being solved. The work and scientific breakthrough that followed Darwin can be considered just as noble and ingenious, if not more – an entirely new field of science was about to emerge. Once again, the 4 W’s of classical literature were applied, this time to the specifics behind evolution and natural selection specifically. Through the intense scrutiny placed on the process and driving force behind evolution, several alternative mechanisms to natural selection were proposed, many seeking to provide a more reasonable or comprehensible explanation rather than natural selection, which seemed to take eons to function in comparison. Such examples include neo-Lamarckism, the idea that organisms had some degree of control over selected traits, and Orthogenesis, the idea that organisms were constantly stimulated to develop towards ultimate perfection. These ideas were widely popular with scholars and scientists in certain fields that aligned with such views, but it would be Darwin’s general idea of natural selection that would prevail into the modern theory of evolution.

A diagram detailing Mendel’s most famous work with pea plants, proving the existence of genetic heredity. Source: bhavanajagat.com

Only a few ideals from the alternative mechanisms survived the introduction of a new field of science: Genetics. Gregor Mendel and his team of scientists had begun to unravel the complex laws of genetic inheritance, each with enormous implications in evolutionary biology. But even with the extension of genetics, more questions were raised than solved. It was now understood that organisms indeed followed predictable patterns when passing down their genes, but how could this account for examples of lightning fast evolution observed in organisms like the peppered moth, which had changed its color in less than 30 years? The development of two new fields of science addressed these questions: Population Genetics, which was the study of gene appearance and frequency within a population, and on a larger scale, as a species; Molecular Biology disassembled the exact functions behind genes such as DNA and RNA with impeccable accuracy. These answered many of the questions that were previously proposed by geneticists, and revealed that natural selection indeed still plays a major role within evolution, causing pressure to shift gene frequencies, and over time, change entire gene sequences. The advancements in these fields, along with established theories like natural selection, make up the modern synthesis of evolutionary thought.

The modern tree of life is ever expanding; the diagram shown here represents only a generalized fraction of the biological diversity found on Earth. Source: A new view of the tree of life, nature.com

Citations: 

https://www.britannica.com/science/evolution-scientific-theory/History-of-evolutionary-theory

https://www.britannica.com/event/Enlightenment-European-history

https://www.britannica.com/science/spontaneous-generation

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Darwin

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