Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Darwin Day!

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution"
Theodosius Dobzhansk

There is beauty in symmetry, even among the dead. Maybe especially among the dead.

One of the defining aspects of life is its organization, an organization that seemingly defies entropy. Of course it doesn't--energy flows through the system, creating a temporary order, but it's only temporary.

My lambs do not know this yet, and many adults refuse to face it.

 Imagine the fear, the loneliness, Charles Darwin felt as his ideas fell into place. Darwin did not come up with evolution--heck, even his grandfather Erasmus got that far. Darwin's genius was realizing that life's great variety and great sameness could all be attributed to natural selection.

Once life started, we no longer needed a God to explain it. Everything, everything, in biology makes sense in light of descent with modification through natural selection. Very little makes sense otherwise.

We may just be a happy accident.

Leslie and I walk along the beach a couple of times a week, every week, no matter the weather, no matter what's happening in our lives, pretty much no matter what.

We see and smell life, we see and smell death, both exposed on the tidal flats.

We see gulls pecking at the gills of an overturned horseshoe crab, her tail flailing uselessly. A week later we find a dead gull near the same spot, perhaps one of the gulls that stripped the life away from the horseshoe crab just a few days earlier.

There is not enough light in February to support the life created in June. Cracks form, lives shatter.

The horseshoe crab has wandered along this bay's edge long before humans, and may well creep along its shores long after we're gone.

They are magnificent critters, with multiple eyes with multiple functions, frightfully ornate shells, each spike, each hair with a purpose, and a plodding, purposeful movement that that reflects a philosophy older than language. They live  because they live, and they do it well.

The beach fly above is sitting in in the sand-filled shell of a dead horseshoe crab last week. There were several of them around, picking at the remnants of flesh of the horseshoe crab left behind by the gulls.

The beach flies know nothing of entropy, though they know plenty of things I cannot imagine.


If Darwin's ideas do not send a shiver down your spine, you may not be reading him right.

Each and every organism alive today--the bacteria in your gut, the fungus on our toenail, the tree outside your window--all came from common ancestors. With enough time, natural selection alone can explain our differences.

And there has been more than enough time.

All photos taken last week in North Cape May.


Kathryn J said...

Happy Darwin Day to you too! Your pics make me want to walk on the beach.

I have one student who keeps telling me she can't "believe" in evolution because of her religion; one step at a time. She is totally fascinated by natural selection involving coloring and makes elaborate drawings. I have gotten her to change over time - we'll see how it progresses.

Anonymous said...

My response is always that you do not have to believe in science to make it so - it just is. It's like saying you don't believe in gravity. it doesn't matter what you believe, you will still not soar off into space at your next step.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I get a few like that every year--I don't push the conclusion, as obvious as it seems to us. If a child continues to think outside your classroom, she will, sooner or later, get it.

We know it's not a "belief" system, but we're asking some of our students to give up the way they saw the world up to this point.

I have faith that folks who keep thinking, and who keep observing, and who keep loving the world, will eventually arrive at rational views. (THe irrational is fine, too, in its place--just not in science.)

Dear Anonymous,

That response, alas, is a tiny part of the problem. You can say you don't believe in gravity as it is presented in science--which includes the idea that Sirius is tugging at you a tiny bit as you read these words--and still accept that the Earth and you have some kind of (obvious) attraction.

Science is not logical positivism, though it is often confused as such. It is, in the end, constructed on models, models with specific rules based on the natural world of course, but still models, and in that sense, human constructs.

The "it just is" argument will not persuade those whose belief systems follow the same logic.