Remembering Charles Darwin

It only takes the rational discipline of the scientific method to look beyond the filters of romanticism that the whimsical belief of human intuition so inconveniently sets upon our views of the natural world. The natural world operates not according to our prejudices of sense and subjective value but rather to the logical consequences of cold, unadulterated reason.

The remarkable fictional detective Sherlock Holmes once reflected that “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”  The commonplace occurrence of an apple falling from a tree or a butterfly flitting about a flower might elicit little, if any, interest to a casual observer. However, a great mind witnessing such nondescript phenomena would be compelled not just to witness them, but indeed, to ask “why?”; to ask the right question in the first place.

When questioning nature, the mind of a scientific thinker should always seek to employ the most rigorous standards of objective analysis, rooted in a firm basis of impartial investigation and logical synthesis. In essence, one’s logic should derive from what nature is rather than from what nature should be.

The great intellectual luminary and highly influential naturalist Charles Darwin serves as one such example of the triumph of the human mind over the traditional mode of superstitious thought and ideological conviction. Darwin’s powerful abstractions, untrammeled by the shackles of presumed prejudice, had the foresight to ask what lied behind his observations. They, indeed, constitute the brilliancy of wit that defined Darwin’s enduring legacy – to ask the question before you answer it.

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Charles Darwin, influential thinker and naturalist.

Darwin was able to extract observations of the generalized patterns that he saw in nature. The data he gathered confirmed the deducible consequences suggested by the hypothesis of mutability of species. Such method of scientific analysis, often attributed to Darwin, is often known as the hypothetico-deductive method.

The premise of validity for such a method rests upon how much explanatory power one’s arguments can elicit relative to the alternative supposition. What could account for two structurally similar, yet self-distinct species? Why would distinct species exist that can perform similar functions? Are similar displays of striped patterns in equine species indicative of descent of these species from a common ancestor?  In the Origin of Species, Darwin remarks:

He who believes that each equine species was independently created, will, I presume, assert that each species has been created with a tendency to vary, both under nature and under domestication, in this particular manner, so as often to become striped like other species of the genus; and that each has been created with a strong tendency, when crossed with species inhabiting distant quarters of the world, to produce hybrids resembling in their stripes, not their own parents, but other species of the genus. To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.

Indeed, the explanatory power of such a hypothesis very much supersedes the explanatory vacuity of immutable design by an intelligent entity. Darwin reflects “What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions?”  Indeed, such structures seem to be traceable to a common plan, rather than discretely designed. On traveling from north and south of South America and observing two similar yet distinct species of rheas that are not separated by any geographical boundaries, Darwin concedes “it was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me.

One may be tempted to ask, why did such an elegant yet quite simple a theory, have to wait until the late 18th century for the genius of Charles Darwin to formulate it? This is a theory that was posited centuries after Newton’s calculus (1668). Indeed, such a delay could very well have been the result of age-old, authoritative convictions dimming out any other alternative possibilities. For centuries, prejudice has clouded reason, in such a manner that no acknowledgement of disconfirmation could have even been dreamt up. The story of Charles Darwin should serve as a reminder of the folly of the dogmatic predilections of belief.

“It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” – Charles R. Darwin

Bibliography

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: J. Murray.

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