Evolution in Thought & Deed

After 150 years, we are still reckoning with the profound insights of Darwin's On the Evolution of Species.

As hundreds of millions of humans will learn this February 12, precisely 200 years have passed since the birth of Charles Robert Darwin in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. Darwin celebrations will commence worldwide beginning in February and culminating 10 months later on a second landmark anniversary, November 24, the day 150 years ago when the most important scientific treatise of the 19th century, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, was published.

This issue of the Academy magazine is devoted to the topic of evolution, a term so controversial in its day that Darwin's only allusion to human evolution was in the following phrase: "...light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." Incredibly, a century and a half later in the United States of America, a Pew Research Poll revealed that 42 percent of the populace believes humans never evolved but are as they were created. Moreover, of the roughly 50 percent who expressed their belief in human evolution, 2 of every 5 stated that they believe a supreme being influenced the process. Only 1 in 4 Americans believe in natural selection!

No wonder scientific organizations the world over are holding public events to discuss evolution: the AAAS at its annual meeting in February, London's Natural History Museum in April, Cambridge University in July, Barcelona's CosmoCaixa on dates to be announced, the Galapagos islanders in August, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences throughout the year, and so on. (For a calendar, see www.darwin-online.org.uk/2009.html

We at The New York Academy of Sciences are planning our own events—after all, Darwin was a member! (Check for details at www.nyas.org/darwin.) And we've honored him by gathering some special articles for this issue. On p. 14, six remarkable scholars reflect on how Darwin continues to influence science. On p. 7, we reprint an excerpt from a speech of my predecessor by 100 years, Charles Finney Cox, who reminded Academy members in his time of the challenges Darwin faced when he published Origin of Species. And, on p. 22, we give you an excerpt from the book itself.

A point made a century ago by Cox that still holds true today is that the human mind has a difficult time accepting the full implications of natural selection. Darwin spent decades in painstaking observation of natural forms before daring to issue his groundbreaking tome. Meanwhile, another equally grand idea was developing over centuries in the United States. An entirely coincidental but, to my mind, eerily related second bicentennial will take place on February 12: the celebration of the birth of Abraham Lincoln in a log cabin in what is today LaRue County, Kentucky.

Lincoln's public proclamation of his most consequential view of humankind didn't come easily either. The U.S. Constitution had stated that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," including "Liberty." But nearly a century later, it took enormous courage for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

One final point: Even as the nation was passing the Thirteenth Amendment which made Lincoln's ban on slavery national, this series of momentous actions was wrapped in the mantle of religious-based morality rather than in scientifically inspired morality. Freeing the slaves was obedient to the intent of the Creator, a supreme being who had made no appearance in Darwin's opus of a few years before.

As we approach the bicentennials of the birth of Darwin and Lincoln and the 150th anniversaries of their observations about natural selection and the equality of all humans, debates have never been more heated about the relationship of religion and science. While many of our political leaders profess their allegiance to a supreme being, our scientists attempt to separate personal religious beliefs from the findings of their profession. To Darwin and his progeny, whether one believes in a supreme being or not, it isn't a "creator" who "endows" humankind with characteristics of one kind or another, but a process of natural selection—a process which produced an animal that could entertain a remarkable, and sometimes frustrating, variety of views. Some members of the species support evolution; some deride it. Some acknowledge the equality of all humankind; others use ethnic origin, race, religion, and even science (genetic makeup) to assert the superiority of one group over another. A shockingly large part of the human species actually continues to practice slavery.

How slow is the evolution of the human mind! Only the small victories keep our spirits up: the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of a universal declaration of human rights in 1948, for example, and, just recently, the election of an Afro-American to the presidency of a nation that only three score years ago practiced segregation.

The scientific community must derive inspiration where it can be found, because the battle to enlighten the public—especially in the U.S.—remains a major challenge. The coming celebrations of Darwin and his treatise represent a global effort by the scientific community to rededicate itself to the struggle to educate. The governors, staff, and 25,000 members of the Academy support this noble effort. And we recognize that the hard work is on the ground in our schools, in our legislatures and, tougher still, in the hearts of our fellow citizens.