On Evolution

Contrary to what some believe, Charles Darwin did not develop or invent the concept of evolution as thoughts of origins and evolution go back to the Greeks (Democritus), Romans (Lucretius), and the Chinese (Tao). Within Christianity, the concept dates back to at least to the fourth century with Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 C.E.) and St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.). Darwin merely explained the how evolution occurs – and that is natural selection.

Darwin’s studies included theology, medicine, and geology; thus like many in at this time, William Paley’s Natural Theology influenced his view of nature. Since studying nature was Darwin’s primary love, in 1831 his five-year journey as the ship’s naturalist on the HMS Beagle began – a trip upon which he took copious, detailed notes about anatomy and geology.

Karl Giberson (Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, 2008) writes the following about Darwin’s journey and thinking.

He (Darwin) started his career as a naturalist viewing the world through the lens of natural theology and seeing intelligent design. But he began to notice that things didn’t fit: here is an animal with webbed feet on dry land; there is a bee that dies after stinging its prey, its stinger serrated in a way that prevents extraction after insertion; here is a cat apparently torturing a mouse before killing it. … (Later regarding the webbed feet) If this was the handiwork of God, it was surely a cruel joke, as anyone who has ever tried to walk in flippers knows only too well.

As we know today, Darwin also knew about how we use selective breeding (artificial selection) to produce offspring with favorable variations; and thus wondered if a similar selection process existed within nature. By continuing his studies after his journey, an essay by Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) about competition for food stimulated more thoughts. Since living things struggled for a limited resource, the most-fit organisms survive to reproduce – thus natural selection.

Variations are slight differences between organisms of the same species. Looking at the human face one sees two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, various characteristics about hair, and numerous other features. On the other hand, consider all the variations that humans display in their face alone. Examining the orange breast of multiple robins shows differences as the interspersed white is not identical from bird to bird, thus variations of a trait within a species.

Natural selection favors organisms with the most favorable variations, so over time a population adjusts within species, and even the creation of new species. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote the following without knowledge of genetics:

Thus the small differences distinguishing varieties of the same species, steadily tend to increase, till they equal the greater differences between species of the same genus, or even a distinct genera.

Darwin did not publish his thoughts for 20 years, yet, a paper by Alfred Russell Wallace explaining natural selection from his studies in southeastern Asia pushed Darwin to publish. Yet the two men eventually jointly presented (in absentia) the theory of natural selection to the Linnean Society – and to think that Wallace is the one who coined Darwinism, which was also the title of his book (1889).

Knowledge about fossils and biology at Darwin’s time was shallow. Although the concept of a very old earth was already emerging, Darwin figured more answers would come over time with the discovery of life’s story within the fossil record lying below our feet.

Today, evolutionary scientists use genetics, DNA comparison, comparative anatomy, embryology, and the growing fossil record to determine life’s journey over time. Fossil discoveries continue to demonstrate that change obviously occurred and the sacred texts had not recorded these events. Meanwhile, the genetic changes Darwin described happen in genes, which Mendel and others discovered later.

Evolution is in action today through nature. Consider a tropical butterfly population evolving resistance to a killer bacteria or the increasing leg length in a toad species in their quest to secure the best habitat in a newly-introduced region. Think about impacts our daily lives today as flu vaccines are adjusted yearly in response to evolving viruses, or how bacteria become resistant to the antibodies we developed to protect ourselves against them.

Evolution is also a unifying concept serving as a common thread running through other biological concepts as maintaining a regulatory balance (homeostasis), the need for energy, organizing matter within life, continuing life through genetics, developing an organism from start to death, and organisms interacting with each other and with their surrounding environment. As evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Meanwhile, one can have a misunderstanding about science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can ignore science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

One can disagree with science, but that does not mean science is wrong.

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49 thoughts on “On Evolution

  1. Another excellent post Frank, and I like that you ended it with the same thoughts as the previous one on science.
    One note, evolution is not necessarily the “best” option. It is merely the one that survived for whatever reason.
    I think the assignment of something like “best” is more a reassurance of ourselves against the myriad other possibilities that could have occurred.

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    • Guapo,
      Thanks for noticing the common endings because Tuesday’s post was a setup for this post.

      Meanwhile, evolution by natural selection has survived because that is were the evidence has taken it … and it will continue to survive until the evidence best supports an alternative. Even at the time of Darwin, acquired characteristics and orthogenesis were both popular explanations of evolution, but the evidence moved away from them. After all, that’s how science works. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I have enjoyed you historical perspective on this century’s old argument. I cannot comment any further. To do so would be futile. Minds are made up on this one and few minds are ever changed. Those who believe in intelligent design (God?) won’t be moved from their position and the ones who think science is the answer to everything won’t be moved from theirs.

    I have a great many theories and scenarios. I will use them in my stories.

    Thanks for pushing my need to think to a little higher level.

    Tim

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    • Tim,
      The historical perspective is fascinating. I recommend two books on this topic, the Giberson book I quote in this post and the Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse. (My post about this book: https://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2011/05/24/on-the-evolution-creation-struggle-a-book/)

      Many aspects of the disagreement center on misconceptions, misinformation, and lack of information … and I have written much on the topic of the interchange between science and religion. But, since that is not the purpose of this post, I invite you to see those posts in the sidebar.

      Glad I was able to stimulate some thought. Thanks for visiting.

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  3. Hi,
    Darwin was really spot on about fossils and biology, a lot more answers have certainly come to light as the years pass on, and these finds have indeed told us or have given us a lot more understanding about not only the age of the earth, but of the animals that may have originally roamed the planet as well.

    Also as Darwin thought, fossils have indeed showed evolution, not only in different species of animals, but also different variety of plants as well. Plants over time have also evolved as the earth has changed, and plants have adapted to the change within the planet. Of course evolution doesn’t stop, it keeps evolving into whatever it has to, there will always be change. 🙂
    A truly wonderful and thought provoking post.

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    • Mags,
      Thanks for sharing the additional information. And yes, information about plant evolution is plentiful and not commonly discussed. Glad you appreciated the post and thanks for commenting.

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  4. my daughter, a travel agent, is going to the galapagos islands this summer. i’ve heard that the islands are being ruined by tourists, and i tried to talk her out of it, but no luck.

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  5. What an interesting and well-written post, Frank. Darwin certainly led an interesting life and he did come up with a ‘theory’. My problem is where people take that to another level altogether and make his ‘theory’ out to be a proven science which is not what Darwin ever suggested. xx

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  6. I really find this post (and the previous) stimulating, Frank. I don’t have nearly the same amount of learned information behind thoughts and beliefs on topic, but I do have a very similar sense of the history of some of the beliefs that have completely polarized individuals. I am a Christian, and I’m not at all threatened by evolutionary theories and I simply believe that scientific inquiry is always going to open more questions then probably answer. I find that exciting, not troubling. I am really enjoying your discussion. Your theses are welll-informed and you have given thought and study to your postions. Thanks for sharing some resources–I hold onto bibliographies and always hope I’ll have more time to study new topics! Debra

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    • Debra,
      Here’s what many Christians do not realize – This concept is not threatening! If you want to more info about the interchange between religion-science interchange, I have a category in the sidebar (Religion and Science). There is a lot in there to ponder and most likely support your belief system. Meanwhile, this post is not taking a theological position, but looking at the science. Many thanks for commenting.

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  7. Nice job Frank. The bookend you leave is that denying the truth doesn’t make the truth disappear. The frustration comes when people deny confirmed science. Granted, some get more frustrated than others on both sides of the argument and most of that seems like wasted energy anyway.
    I try to look at the everyday applications of a single cell’s motivation to multiply all the way up to the guy next to me trying to get my parking space.
    Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel does a good job of detailing how everything down to a molecular level is motivated by its own self interest. That will never change (or if it’s going to, I’ll read it in your blog!)

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  8. Biology has always been my least favorite subject; not too unlike politics in that there are always others with such adamantly strong opinions that I prefer to look away and totter about in my somewhat peaceful existence. I give you kudos for very graciously walking the tightrope between and above these adamantly strong opinions. Sometimes the name “Darwin” seems to have the same polarizing effect as the name “Jesus” (though opposite poles). Thanks for giving him his place in history.

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    • Twixt,
      Interestingly, evolution is not controversial within the science community. Outside the community its controversy is grounded in misconceptions or denial … plus the “battle within the media” focuses on the extremes at each end; as they fire volleys at each other (and over and past those not on the extremes), this supports the impress that one must make a choice, which is less of the case than many realize. Hmmm … hope all that makes sense. Thanks for commenting.

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  9. Congratulations Frank on a well written, well researched, and well presented post. I’ve read it twice now and admire your handling of the subject. As you know, I recently attended a Darwin exhibit here in San Antonio. I left this very extensive exhibit realizing how little I actually knew about Darwin and his work. Many of the topics you touched on here were presented at the exhibit, by the way, so…well done! As you may also know, or not, I am an atheist therefor I do not see Darwin or his work in any sort of controversial light. I do, however, understand that to others evolution may threaten beliefs which I do not hold, so again I applaud you on your handling of the subject as well as your decision to present it. Oh! And I will definitely check out the link you gave to bestbathroombooks!

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    • Alex,
      I’m glad you appreciated this. Knowing of your recent visit to the exhibit is why I was anxious for your comment – although I knew it would meet with your approval.

      I knew you are an atheist, which is fine (I’m not a pushy Christian). I actually think about trying to differentiate atheists and agnostics, which I admit having trouble with, but maybe someday I will try to write about that – however, that is a topic all to itself.

      One of the reasons I self-study the religion-science interchange is the fact that I believe that most Christians do not realize that they do not have to choose religion or science – that the two can coexist without threat of the other. I say that not to go off topic, but to emphasize that in order to do that, they must also understand the science, and not be mistaken by the misconceptions that some provide about the science. This post and the science post earlier in the week are part of that journey that others need to know.

      Ok … I’m starting to ramble on the soapbox. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!!

      Like

  10. I began to understand evolution when I saw the display on Darwinism at the Natural History museum in London. I believe believe only in the simplistic statement that man comes from baboons, not understanding the true meaning of natural selection. An informative post, thank you.

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    • Colline,
      Welcome first-time visitor … and to comment on not-the-easiest topic in itself! (A special thanks for that too.) I’m going to alter your wording a little for a point. Interestingly, the statement “human evolving from apes” is a statement by the anti-evolutionists – thus the evolutionist don’t say that because humans and apes share common ancestry. I say that as an example of how over generalizing takes the point further from the truth of the statement. (I hope that makes sense). And yes – most people don’t understand evolution or natural selection. Meanwhile, thanks for visiting and I hope you return as I cover a wide range of topics.

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  11. Pingback: Friday Foolishness – It’s Just A Little Bunny Rabbit Edition | Guapola

  12. I love these science based music videos. They are such a cool way to present the ideas. I personally believe the Bible supports Evolution but I know many would disagree. And why are so many Christians afraid of science anyway? At the very least – it seems that the so-called divide between the two is shrinking. For me they represent two sides of the same coin where Science represents knowledge and Spirituality (or religion if you prefer) represents practice. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. In fact one without the other just seems like foolishness. But that’s just my opinion (“in the shorts” – if you will.)
    🙂

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    • Mobius,
      This video is from the Symphony of Science (link under Potpourri on the sidebar). I’ve used many of them in various posts – including some on the religion and science category. Don’t see yourself short on the number of people have a positive relation between theology and science, and I think you would enjoy reading the numerous posts I have on the interesting interchange. Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.

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  13. Great post, Frank. All one has to do is be a gardener for a few years to understand natural selection; if people think there is no evolutionary change, I encourage them to walk up the steps to some old castles in Europe – their feet will never fit on the steps. Although evolutionary change is generally measured in very long time increments, faster changes do occur and can be easily seen by anyone who cares to look. “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan is an intriguing look at the effects of human selection on plants, or is it what the plant secretly desires in an effort to remain at the top of the selection process? 🙂

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    • Lynn,
      As you eluded to, information about evolution in plants is bountiful. Thanks for the resource too!!! In terms of the feet, is it evolutionary or the effect of environment factors as diet and modern medicine? Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  14. Another excellent post from you. Unfortunately many people don’t want to acknowledge the splendid theory of natural selection. Still it’s only a theory and as such a theory in constant development – or evolution, excuse my pun. Many associate the expression survival of the fittest with Darwin and his theory, but what most people don’t know is that the expression was never used in the book On the Origin of Species.

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    • Otto,
      Great about Darwin not using the “survival of the fittest” phrase. (I think that comes up in a future post.) Those who use the “only a theory” excuse forget theory’s meaning. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for visiting.

      Like

  15. I think God created this universe, and he set in place all the Forces, one of which is adaptation\evolution. I also think that God can reach in whenever He wants and rearrange matters. God also created so many puzzles and riddles that scientists will have full time study forever. It is so grand a plan. It is sad to see the arguments and fights like abtwixt referred to. I have to read more of your posts on this subject.

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    • Randel,
      I really believe that many people don’t realize how many people are able to successfully integrate religion and science. With that in mind, I invite you to see the that category because they will stimulate your thinking and providing resources. Thanks for visiting.

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    • Elyse,
      Good take. A lot of issues here: yep, afraid and don’t understand … and in this case many don’t know. Especially with those 40 and older, I would be willing to guess that less than 50% had evolution taught in school – of course that doesn’t differentiate those who were taught well from the poorly taught. In other words, how can someone disagree with something they know very little about? (I know I’m preaching to the choir.) Ok … enough …. thanks for commenting.

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      • People ALWAYS disagree with what they don’t understand, in my experience, anyway.

        That’s the biggest challenge we have in education — to get kids interested in science and math. Adults too. And actually, your blog often presents science in a non-threatening way which is really important.

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        • Elyse,
          Great point about what about people disagreeing with what that don’t understand … so I will add, and to what they misunderstand.

          Thanks for the nice words. Interestingly, I post a science topic, and then look at the number of comments that went in the theological direction. Oh well … Thanks again!

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  16. I never really understood why there has to be the argument between religion and science on this subject. Could it not be possible that a god created the universe, and knew that Humans would eventually come out of those building blocks?

    I just can’t grasp the idea of God being all knowing, and yet, somehow stupid enough to not have included evolution. Surely if living things have free-will, then there has to be a mechanism to encourage growth and survival. We can accept both God and religion, and all we have to do is consider the story of Adam and Eve to be of one family in a very large world, rather than the genesis of our entire species.

    Maybe I’m underthinking it.

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    • Cynical Driver,
      Like anything else, there is a history to religion-science debate involving evolution. As I look at various statistics, I strongly believe that 1) many don’t know much about evolution, yet have an opinion, 2) many believe they need to make a choice, yet not all denominations preach this, and 3) the accepting denominations are not educating their flock. Toss in the media featuring the arguments between the extremes, the perfect storm for misinformation.

      Don’t sell your thoughts short because they group that thinks like you is larger than people realize. I’ve written many posts on this topic, so if you are interested in reading more, see “Religion & Science” category in the sidebar. Thanks for visiting.

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  18. Frank, I’ve read this post before, and hesitated to comment. I myself have, in my blog, credited Darwin as the mastermind behind the theory of evolution. I knew better, and only did so to communicate a funny illustration. For shame… I know. I’m even now putting on the panties of shame (an old joke between some friends and me. I can’t believe I’m dropping it here, but I’ll let it stay 🙂 ).

    I noticed that you made the statement that evolution is an action today, through nature. You then used a few examples of natural selection for us to consider. Were we to consider these examples of natural selection as evidence, or perhaps even proof, of evolution? I assume that we were.
    There is a clear distinction between natural selection and evolution. Darwin may have used one to explain the other, but that’s all I’ll give. Possible explanation? Fine. Proof? No.
    Building an immunity or inheriting traits from ones parents is one thing, becoming an entirely other species is quite another.
    I believe well and good in science, but I also believe in miracles. Miracles are a thing that science cannot explain, and needn’t explain.
    The Genesis account of the origin of the universe is an account of a miraculous event. I’ll not use science as permission to pick and choose which parts of the Bible to agree with and which parts to dismiss as poppycock.
    Is that what you’re doing?

    Like

    • Dink,
      Wow … some of the answers to your question may be individual posts! 😉 Good stuff, but I will give the short versions a shot.

      First of all, and most importantly, well done at your own confession. To me, that in itself tells a lot.

      Many think evolution and speciation as synonyms – but they aren’t. For instance, evolution within a species is not the same as evolution into a new species.

      I just discovered an interesting tidbit. An author stated that in his book, Darwin only used the word evolution once or twice. (I think most of us would have not expected that.) I say that because he explained natural selection as the process for evolution – and may have excluded the e-word because of the way it was used at the time. So scientists today use evolution by natural selection.

      Regarding miracles, just because one believes in miracles does not mean they should discount science. After all, science cannot explain miracles doesn’t mean that miracles don’t exist. Here’s a past post about miracles that you may enjoy. https://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/on-miracles/

      Regarding Genesis, the authors of Genesis never ended it to be a science book, therefore shouldn’t be used as a science book – nor should science be adjusted to fit the account. Many theologians don’t see a conflict between Genesis and science, and the same can be said for many scientists. My past post that comes to mind is this one https://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/on-a-lost-world/.

      Dink – I appreciate the respectful nature in the way you asked the questions! Hope I was able to answer some of your concerns. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and asking good questions.

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  19. Sure thing, Frank. 🙂

    Actually… you did answer some questions. And you did so very well.
    Now, (I’m following you better than this question would seem to indicate) are you suggesting that Darwin was not a proponent of speciation; instead, that his theories only supported evolution within specific species, in other words natural selection?
    I need to read his book. It’s been on my list for years now.

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    • Dink,
      FYI: On the Origin of the Species is difficult reading. I read the first and last chapters, and that was torture.

      I’m not sure how Darwin specifically addressed speciation. Keep in mind that fossil evidence was relatively new during his time … especially as compared to what we know today with fossils. Nonetheless, it fits natural selection well.

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  20. Pingback: Flashbacks: On Science | A Frank Angle

  21. I enjoyed your discussion of evolution, Frank. Excellent job.

    Down here in the bible belt I am often dismayed at the open hostility to the concept of evolution. Religion must have survival value for it to be so common. But if that’s true, then consider the irony: Religious disagreement has been the root cause of war and suffering in the world for more than two decades now, even as governments shun sensible environmental science. Sometimes I think man is not the tip of the food chain after all. It might be the cockroach.

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  22. I am so happy to be catching up on some of your past posts! This one is well thought out and wonderfully presented. I wish we had more like you down here in the backward state of Texas, perhas our State Board of Education wouldn’t be so hellbent on creationism as science.

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