December 01, 2008

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | The Importance of Dangerous Ideas

A portrait of the young Charles Darwin

It took courage to challenge society, the certainties of life in Victorian England and his own faith: but Charles Darwin did it, however reluctantly, because he knew he had found a greater truth.

By Wilson da Silva

IT’S ONE of the greatest stories in science: how an inquisitive 22-year-old sails around the world, encounters creatures never before seen and makes an extraordinary discovery that changes his world.

And yet, Charles Darwin never wanted the fame, the controversy nor the ructions the ideas triggered. But once he realised the importance of his discovery of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution, he knew his responsibility as a scientist: to document and divulge his ‘dangerous idea’, whatever the consequences.

It’s an enthralling story. As a teenager, I could not help but be excited to read of his exploits. It was like reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, and yet this really happened: a shy, awkward young man, unsure what he wants to do with his life, faces trials and tribulations, finds his manhood and returns to be recognised and celebrated by his peers.

That’s where he could have left it. But slowly, as he documented his five-year voyage, perused and catalogued his vast collection of samples, he began to realise that a powerful natural force pervaded all life.

Evolution is a deceptively simple idea, not immediately obvious to the casual observer. But its effects are complex, and span millions of years. If geology can be summed up as pressure plus time, then evolution is basically genetics and environment plus time.

Did he doubt what he saw? Surely the method by which one species morphs into another cannot be so simple? But the more he studied the concept in species after species, the more he saw the effect.

It was like suddenly recognising a language you had always heard in the background but could never understand: it was the language of life itself, whispering its secrets to anyone who took the trouble to listen carefully.

Darwin was also a man of faith: he attended a Church of England school, studied theology at Cambridge and had planned to be a clergyman. The implications of his discovery on religion troubled him. People of Darwin’s time were discovering that all was not as they had been taught, that the ancients had, in many cases, been mistaken by erroneous presuppositions or a lack of data.

So it was an exciting time, but also a disturbing one. Darwin’s ideas challenged the old shibboleths in Victorian England. And yet, they were based on evidence. And, as a man of science, he could not ignore the evidence.

As Carl Zimmer writes in his excellent book, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, “Evolution connects us to the dawn of Earth, to showers of comets and death-winds of stars. It produced the crops we eat and now helps insects destroy them. It illuminates the mysteries of medicine, such as how mindless bacteria can outwit the best minds in science...it reveals how our minds were assembled among lonely bands of apes. We may still struggle with what evolution says about our place in the universe, but that universe is all the more remarkable.”

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, a thoroughly researched and meticulously argued book that sent shock waves across the world. He did not publish it on a whim: he mulled over the ideas for 23 years, and only really started writing a decade before publishing it.

While it did not address the issue directly, the clear implication of evolution is that a God is not needed to create each individual animal; that they can arise naturally and blindly. For Darwin, this implication caused him consternation, earned him enemies and triggered a firestorm of public and private controversy.

“That would make a great film,” a young university student told me, as I recounted Darwin’s extraordinary life. Indeed it would, and it has been tried, usually as a documentary. But it has all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster: all we need is someone to make it.