“Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution…” were the words (and title of an essay) written by that famous Zoologist Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Born in Nemirov, (part of the then Russian empire) in 1900, Dobzhansky is widely regarded as the founder of evolutionary genetics. And like all famous scientists (some say, all scientists), he had a knack for doing things out of curiosity; in his childhood, Dobzhansky would collect insects for fun and it is no wonder he would go on to do extensive genetic research on the Fruit-fly (Drosophilla melanogaster).
Oh, sorry for the digression! My main reason for writing today is far from the person of Dobzhansky. I want us to begin a new conversation. A conversation about a subject, either because it is so hard or so controversial, that has been relegated to the fringes of our discussions. We seem to find more room on these pages to harangue about politics, economics, music, books and anything in between. But the mention of “evolution” evokes apprehension, suspicion and folks are quick to run to the hackneyed “you people think man descended from an ape?” question.
Well, for the record, man did not exactly descend from an ape. Or something of the kind. Or perhaps he did?
Such is what evolution has been reduced to, and evolutionists have been on the firing line so many times for being un-Godly, deluded and misleading the public. Nonetheless, evolutionists have done little to help their case. Replies to such attacks from religious groups have been countered by indifference and, in most cases, erudite dismissal. Names like Richard Dawkins and his “millitant atheist” cohort come to mind.
But evolution is not limited to proving or disproving if man really descended from a monkey or if the earth is 4 billion (against the Church’s claim that it is 6,000) years old. Evolution (and Biology for that matter) is so wonderful, poetic and enjoyable a subject that it should take front-page attention.
It is therefore not true that an interest in evolution is the precursor to atheism; neglect of God and a gate to the world of alcohol, drugs, and sexual grand larceny. Some of the world’s most famous scientists have managed to embrace evolution and religion. Darwin in fact delayed the publication of his famous book, On the Origin of Species, because the findings therein clashed with his own religious beliefs. Indeed the book itself roused so much debate in Britain and America then, that it is safe to say it was the most controversial publication of the 1800s.
The biggest, and most widely talked about, of all was the June 30,1860 Oxford evolution debate pitting on one side, Darwin’s friend and biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Church of England on the other side. It was in the heat of the debate that Wilberforce asked Huxley, “do you claim your descent from a monkey through your grandfather or grandmother?” to which Huxley retorted: “I would rather have a monkey for an ancestor, than a man who uses his special gifts to obscure the truth”.
The Huxley-Wilberforce debate aroused attention to this new field of science and the 1900s saw a gradual acceptance of evolution by natural selection as a theory that could, more than any other, explain the origin of life. These debates would make a comeback in the early 70s, 80s and lately with the emergence of the “Intelligent Design” school of thought and Darwinists like Sir Richard Dawkins.
In short, a subject that many would consider boring has shown it is capable of rousing debate across all sections of society. And such debate is not limited to religious zealots and “rock-the-boat” evolutionists, but even among scientists; Zoologists and Paleontologists, even Physicists. The interesting arguments amongst all these groups are missed when we declare evolution hard or boring.
I want to take you on a journey into this uncharted territory – Evolution. I want you to discover with me that there’s a lot to life than politics and daily gossip on TV. That evolution can be captivating, simple and poetic. Join me!
This article is the first in a series that will appear on the website science.ug starting January 2015. We will attempt to explain scientific phenomena in a clear, concise and easy to understand way. We shall cover the areas of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Philosophy and Natural history. Watch the space!