What Would Darwin Do?


If Charles Darwin were alive today, 200 years after his birth, he would be thrilled, excited and a little shocked with the scientific vitality and validation of evolution and its predictions, but bored by the lingering public controversy over his theory, experts say.

Here is what would tickle the father of evolution on this bicentennial, which also coincides this year with the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species," his most famous book:

"If he had the opportunity to look back for the past 150 years and see all amazing discoveries in the fossil record, including feathered dinosaurs, walking fish and walking whales, he'd be delighted to see that there is evidence in the historical record of the planet for evolution and the transformation from one organism to another," said Michael Novacek, provost and curator in the Department of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

When Darwin penned "Origin," there were few fossils available for him to use as evidence, because fossil-hunting was a relatively new field and expeditions to dig for fossils were harder to undertake than they are today — no Jeeps, no satellite phones, no electricity.

Also, genes, which enable the passing of traits down through generations, were unknown at the time. Even though the laws governing inheritance were being worked out by Austrian priest and scientist Gregor Mendel during Darwin's lifetime, the significance of this work for evolution and all of biology went undiscovered until the early 20th century. "The breakthroughs of Mendelian inheritance, from genetics down to the human genome, are an exuberant celebration of evolutionary theory," Novacek said in a telephone interview this week.

Meanwhile, creationists and claims about intelligent design would sound something like a broken record to Darwin, who was familiar, as were his contemporaries, with William Paley's "Natural Theology," published 50 years before "Origin," Novacek explained. Paley asserted that living organisms are so complex and refined that there must be some divine creator behind their design and creation.

"Darwin would probably say, this looks like history repeating itself. This is a little déjà vu," Novacek said. "He would say, 'Here we go again.'"

Happy but also shocked

Chris Beard, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, agreed that Darwin would be happy, and then some, to see how his theory has been sustained and elaborated on since "Origin" was published.

"I think he would perhaps even be shocked to see how well it has held up and to see how the theory itself has evolved through time to encompass new technologies, the modern science of sequencing entire genomes," Beard said.

Mohamed Noor, associate chair of biology at Duke University in North Carolina, said advances in genetics, in particular, would truly excite Darwin. "Today, researchers are finding actual genes that cause species-forming traits like hybrid infertility," said Noor, who is traveling this week to London where he will receive the Linnean Society's prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal for making "major advances in evolutionary biology."

"We are using 'genome sequences' to show that natural selection is pervasive in its effects and that it has contributed to the formation of new species," Noor told LiveScience. "It's truly an exciting time to be an evolutionary biologist, and Darwin would surely be equally excited."

'Surprised' and 'disappointed' at progress

The contemporary controversy over teaching evolution in some parts of the United States and in a handful of other nations would shock Darwin, Beard said.

"I think he was someone who had enough confidence in the power of progress that is inherent in the human mind that he would have assumed that we would be past this by now," Beard said. "In most parts of the world we are. It's mainly us here in America and, oddly enough, people in the Muslim world, who have problems with Darwinian evolution. I think he would be surprised and disappointed that society, frankly, has not made more progress in absorbing the power and, in many ways, the beauty of his theory."

But Darwin would be very pleased to find that there is no controversy in science today about whether evolution occurred, despite continual attempts by creationists to manufacture one, said science historian Richard Milner.

"He would have been delighted, I believe, that the debates within evolutionary biology are now about the why and how of evolution — a continuation of some of the disputes he had with his friend Thomas Huxley about the limits and efficacy of natural selection," Milner said.

Milner continued: "Also, I think he would have been astounded at the some of the twists and turns of modern theory: endosymbiosis (cells made up of combinations of critters), lateral gene transfer (a challenge to the vertical tree of life), self-organization (the mystery of how cells combine into larger entities). Also, the science of genetics, which originated after his death, would have opened a whole new window for him: how genes work, either as 'blueprints' or 'switches,' the 'junk DNA' that turns out not to be junk at all, and the question of whether organic forms are shaped as embryos by some kind of organic origami."

What would Darwin do?

Novacek and Beard offered the following visions for how Darwin might spend his time as a scientist if he were alive today.

Beard: "If I were to speculate, I would think that Darwin would be a modern field biologist, which is what he was in his own time. He devoted a huge amount of his youth to the Beagle voyage and he clearly loved going out in to the field and collecting living animals and plants and collecting fossils, and he enjoyed observing living animals and plants and figuring out how they adapted their anatomy to the environment … By the same token, it is possible that he could be fascinated by scientific and technological advances, and morph into somebody who wears a white lab coat all day long and mixes chemicals in test tubes and tries to figure out the genetic sequences of some strange organism. But that is too much too imagine. I think he'd be a field biologist, collecting information on living plants and animals and collecting fossils too."

Novacek: "He might go crazy … the embarrassment of riches in biology would probably overwhelm him. He loved beetles. Maybe he would just continue to describe beetles. He got very interested in human evolution as his work went along. He might be interested in studies of paleoanthropology and human evolution. One area of biology that might intrigue him is the emergence of evolution in development and the way that development plays a role in more ways than we appreciated before. Finally, there is the tree of life. He drew the first tree of life in his notebook. The fact is that today that is one of the most important biological missions, to map tree precisely from genes to structures, all the information we have on this vast diversity of life. Clearly, this would have excited him, because the tree we have now is a little bit more refined than that sketch he drew, but nonetheless it is basically the fleshed out version of that sketch. The spirit of it was there in Darwin's work."

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.