State of the Planet

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What Darwin Saw

By Samuel Barnes

In 1809, the heady age of exploration was coming to a close. Much of the world had been claimed—if not yet colonized—by sovereign European powers and ideas, and globe making was passing from the realm of visionary arts to one of refined transcription. On the 12th of February that year, though, a boy was born in Shrewsbury, England, who would, after arming himself with knowledge gained on his journeys to the furthest reaches of that quantified globe aboard the HMS Beagle, open the world to a theory that deepened and transformed society’s exploration of life on Earth. Sir Charles Darwin, who was the first modern thinker to quantify evolution, realized that humanity is interwoven with nature, and that all of life is in a state of constant flux.

Darwin's insight was grounded in sensory observation and humility. His first drawing of an evolutionary tree is distinguished by the profound marking near the top: I think. (Image in the public domain)
Darwin's insight was grounded in sensory observation and humility. His first drawing of an evolutionary tree is distinguished by the profound marking near the top: I think. (Image in the public domain)

For nearly 5,000 years (the broadest extent of the historical written record), scriptural traditions had placed meaning, knowledge and purpose ever further away from the living, breathing world, and ever more exclusively into the hands of a separately-created human race uniquely apt to rule and reorder the wild Earth around them. The Christian culture of Europe was deeply ensconced in a modality that demanded violence, antagonism and fear towards the brutish world of the senses: Our kingdom was awaiting us, after death, in an immaterial heaven, and bodily life was little but a shackle to our transcendent spirit. The dominant culture of Darwin and his ancestors (though, notably, not of his family, who identified as Unitarian “free-thinkers”) indoctrinated its subjects to believe that man lives on the world, not in it.

The theory of natural selection defied that order. From his far-flung observations on the Beagle’s circumnavigatory voyage of the Earth’s southern hemisphere and his immersion in the scientific intelligentsia at home in Britain, Darwin came to recognize that meaning, information and history were not human possessions alone. Life transforms itself, through a genetic process called evolution, to an endlessly shifting set of circumstances. Species differentiate from each other to better meet certain needs and better fit open niches. It was from this dense and powerful web that Homo sapiens sapiens first emerged, and it is entangled in this dense web that we remain.

Darwin’s work sent ripples through all spheres of culture—and we are still unpacking what the ideas first exposited in On the Origin of Species mean today. Evolutionary theory gave birth to modern biology, which at last was united in its understanding that the same elemental, chemical and creative forces are present in all life. Thus we were able to begin to comprehend and enhance the human relationship with our millions of fellow organisms. Our countless breakthroughs in medicine, genetics and chemistry stem from this paradigm shift. In a different manner, his findings applied dearly to moral and economic philosophy. The unfortunate incarnation of “social Darwinism,” a justification of coercive power and wealth, misconstrued survival of the fittest as a hierarchical process akin to the structure of capitalism; its wealthy proponents attempted to graft acquisitiveness and cruelty into the order of nature. This view, supported by neither Darwin’s writings nor the experience of the natural world, has recently given way to a different evolutionary philosophy.

The aged Darwin in repose. Our world would not be the same without his inquiry, passion, and intelligence. (Image licensed under Creative Commons by Eduard Solà Vázquez)
The aged Darwin in repose. Our world would not be the same without his inquiry, passion and intelligence. (Image licensed under Creative Commons by Eduard Solà Vázquez)

When we recognize human emergence as part and parcel to the rest of Earth, and further learn that our very bodies are composed of an incredible array of bacteria, fungi, flora and fauna that have evolved along with the cells that carry human DNA, we can begin to appreciate the incredible intelligence of nature itself, that endlessly fecund engine of evolution. The empowerment of nature, made possible by Darwin’s integration of human life into the whole, and grounded in his lived experience and profound humility, is the foundation of modern ecology. We at the Earth Institute study nature not in a bottle but as it truly is, immersed in space and time and life and death: not on the world but in it. And 203 years after Charles Darwin came alive, we are coming to recognize the bountiful, beautiful, ever-evolving life of which the whole Earth is made, and to see it we stand upon his shoulders still.

Beginning on Tuesday, April 10th, CERC is hosting a class by Dr. Martin Mendez entitled “Evolution: Darwin to DNA,’”which will provide an overview of concepts of biological evolution from pre-Darwinian attempts to describe life through modern genetic theory. It will emphasize the history of evolutionary thought and science, review the basic principles of evolutionary theory, and discuss their implications for modern life as well as state-of-the art technologies, such as genomics.

Registration is open at http://www.earth.columbia.edu/events/view/55371

Samuel Barnes is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.

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