In 1831, when a ship named HMS Beagle left on a voyage of discovery from Plymouth Sound, the world was dominated by religious thinking. By the time the chronicle of the ship’s journey was published eight years later, the contours of a scientific revolution were visible. Central to the plot was naturalist Charles Darwin, who was born on 12 February 1809. His book, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859. Modern evolutionary theory dates to that year.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The longevity of scientific theories is directly proportional to the empirical evidence in their favour. By that yardstick, the theory of evolution as stated by Darwin has had a chequered career. A recent New York Times article pointed out that for the most part of its existence, the theory has been opposed or ignored. Attempts at refutation have not only come from scientific quarters, but also from religious and political ones. When viewed from the vantage of 2009, its core has withstood all these challenges.
Why should a work which at its core is a scientific theory, gain extra-scientific fame (or notoriety, depending on your perspective)? Evolution is no longer a concept that is used to explain the diversity of species or their origin: It is now a paradigm that spans almost all social sciences. Phenomena as varied as stock market price fluctuations to class conflict to growth and decay of cities have been subject to evolutionary explanations.
What about the future of the theory and freewheeling evolutionary theorizing? Do they rest on a secure foundation? They do and don’t. In the biological realm, there are interesting intellectual modifications that have been mounted in recent years— such as Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, one that emphasizes the discontinuous nature of evolution instead of continuous evolution, the orthodox interpretation of Darwin’s work. Works that oppose evolutionary theory at more fundamental levels, such as ruling out a role for adaptation in the evolutionary scheme, remain in the realm of philosophical speculation. Then there have been long-standing disputes about the level at which evolution occurs—individual organisms or groups. For a time they were pushed aside, but accumulation of evidence has revived these arguments in recent years.
Here it is apt to draw a comparison with a congruent process that took place in the history of another discipline: cartography or map-making. Economist Paul Krugman has a tale about how an increase in knowledge about the geography of Africa resulted in much less informative maps. It was not that knowledge of map-making had disappeared, but the definition of knowledge had changed. That has been the fate of Darwin’s theories, too.
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