Meandering thoughts on Darwin's bicentennial

Published on Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Meandering thoughts on Darwin's bicentennial


A.H. Jaffor Ullah


Charles Darwin, who single-handedly changed the field of evolutionary biology, was born 200 years ago in England on February 12, 1809.  On the other side of Atlantic another person, who had transformed American society through socio-political reform, was also born on the same day.  He is none other than President Abraham Lincoln.  Americans are very proud of "Abe" Lincoln whose action, as the president during the Civil War, had changed the social landscape of America.  Lincoln's action had started the emancipation of blacks who were mostly working in southern plantations at the time.  Many American historians think that this movement initiated by President Lincoln nearly 145 years ago had culminated in the election of Barack Obama on November 4, 2008. 


In this article I will stay focused on Darwin but from time to time I will digress to talk about how the world was during the nineteenth century when Industrial Revolution just got started.  Charles Darwin's birth took place in propitious time, undoubtedly.  A plethora of knowledge in natural history was already garnered in Europe.  Thanks to the emergence of an elite upper crust in Europe.  These people did not have to toil to eke out a living.  They had plenty of free time in their hand too.  Furthermore, the political events of late eighteenth century in France and America were too good to be true from the perspective of openness.  The power of clergies on the other hand was on the wane in Europe.  Many enlightened families flush with money were allowing their kids to learn new knowledge in biology, physics, chemistry, geography, etc.  Darwin's family was one of the lucky ones.  Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a poet, physician, scientist, and social reformer.  What a combination!  He wrote a book entitled "Zoonomia" to investigate various animal life forms. This book written by Erasmus Darwin discussed the evolution of life forms long before Charles would propound his famous scientific theory of speciation. 


Darwin was born seven years after his grandfather was laid to rest.  I think as a teenager Darwin had read what his grandfather wrote on evolution.  I would call this a jumpstart on the part of Charles.  Being a child raised in a family where money was aplenty, Charles was able to undertake voyages all across the Atlantic down to the tip of South America.  Charles was awed by the diversity of life form.  He was a keen observer; therefore, variations in the pattern of beak formation among finches of closely related species evoked an interest, which probably would have gone unnoticed amongst other young men of his time.


The world prior to Charles Darwin was not exactly the days of ignorance.  When other parts of the world were plunged into darkness, Europe was having the time of enlightenment a big time.  German theologian Martin Luther revolted against the supremacy of the Pope in 1530.  Since then, a lot has happened all across Europe.  Freed from the shackle of religious orthodoxy many European societies have opened a healthy dialogue on society, education, literature, fine arts, etc.  This continued well into the dawn of nineteenth century.  Of course, the contribution of the two seminal events, viz., the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 dwarf the other events.


The emergence of a new moneyed class in England, France, Germany, etc., has impacted the European glasnost in the 18th and 19th century.  The Darwin clan was a quintessential moneyed family in England; therefore, Charles as a youngster had all the opportunities to go into any area of studies.  It is a blessing in disguise that young Charles decided to venture into field biology and become a naturalist.


A question that has vexed me from time to time is – what if Darwin was aware of Gregor Mendel's work on the genetic segregation of traits in garden peas.  The Austrian priest had systematically studied the principle of the inheritance of characteristics through the combination of genes from parent cells.  Both Darwin and Mendel were contemporaries; however, Darwin was unaware of Mendel's pioneering work, which led to the development of a field call Genetics. 


I recently read an article on Charles Darwin published in the Smithsonian magazine from where I learned that Gregor Mendel had in his possession the German version of Darwin's Origin of Species.  It is a mystery to many why Mendel never did connect genes to Darwin's theory of speciation.  If change in genetic traits were the basis or building blocks of Darwin's theory of evolution, then why Mendel never thought the genes that determined the color of garden peas to be the same material.  Of course, it took nearly half a century to realize that nucleic acid is the building block of a gene.  Also, it took about 80 more years before Watson and Crick would discover the three dimensional structure of DNA


Darwin's scientific theory on evolution is considered a landmark finding by all biologists in modern time.  By the dawn of twentieth century, Darwin's theory was only a 35-year old concept; however, most botanists and zoologists had accepted the concept.  Darwin's followers were growing by leaps and bounds allover the world and when molecular biologists were able to sequence the DNA only then the beauty of Darwin's theory began to reveal itself.  The study of genomics started in America and Western Europe hardly 30 years ago and by now the genomics of bacteria, yeast, fungi, human, Arabidopsis (a miniature plant), soybean, rice, etc., have been worked out.  The computer-aided DNA sequence alignments of similar genes among various organisms have led to the birth of a field call Bio-informatics.  And trust me — it is a burgeoning field of studies where biology and computer science had tied their knots.  Through the sequence similarities studies we learned that at molecular level, humans and chimps have gene similarities better than 99% for 96% of the genome that codes for functional proteins.  Folks who have nothing but disdain for Darwin's theory could now seal their lips for the evidence is too strong that humans have evolved from chimps over several millions years. 


No modern-day academician worth his salt would deny the veracity of Darwin's theory of evolution.  However, there still exist a few naysayers among life scientists and educationists who would deny the contribution made by Charles Darwin.  Many of them have coined such a term as "Intelligent Design" to hint that life forms that exist in the world have evolved simultaneously as has been written in the pages of Genesis in Bible or in Koran.


What is the future of Darwinism?  Going forward, scientists would learn how many genes are expressed before a disease would set in at molecular level.  From these results researchers would figure out how to block the expression of such genes.  It is through this interference of gene expression will the scientist be able to block the development of a particular type of cancer.  Many genetic therapies will be discovered in the coming days.  These are just a few concrete examples of the positive effect of Darwinism.  


In summary, I see a great future for Darwinism.  Through this short article I tried to explain that Charles Darwin was able to garner knowledge from the writings of other naturalists including his grandfather Erasmus Darwin.  The other thing that I discussed is the impact of the work of Gregor Mendel on Darwin's and vice versa.  Unfortunately, they failed to understand the interconnectivity between genetics and evolution.  Finally, I touched on the future acceptance of Darwinism amongst escapists.  The good news is that Darwinism is solidly grounded to molecular biology, genomics, bio-informatics, and many other developing fields.  All of these were possible because the precocious mind of Charles Darwin was able to see the origin of species.  He must have had a beautiful mind, unquestionably

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist writes from New Orleans, USA


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