About 130 years ago, a man by the name of Charles Darwin drew his last breath in the sleepy British village of Downe. But Darwin was no ordinary person. His book, the Origins of Species, is arguably the single most influential piece of literature in the field of biology, for his definitive work on evolution by natural selection went on to radically changed the way we viewed the natural world. His theory was so revolutionary that it is still a highly contentious issue amongst certain groups today. So how did Darwin become the controversial visionary that he was?
Truth be told, Darwin’s love affair with the natural sciences was a colicky one. In a stroke of cruel irony, Darwin upbringing was deeply rooted in Christianity, and gave little indication that he would one day become an antagonising figure in religious circles. Born to a wealthy doctor, Darwin was unsurprisingly pushed towards the medical profession, though he found the lectures uninteresting and the gore a little too disturbing, much to his father’s disappointment.
Instead, inspiration for the theory of evolution came from a most unlikely source, when Darwin transferred to the University of Cambridge to study, of all things, divinity. While at university, he also immersed himself with quaint hobbies such as collecting beetles, as well as befriending experts in the field of botany and geology – friendships that would further spur his naturalist inclinations. His scientific contacts would eventually acquaint Darwin with a certain Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle.
The HMS Beagle was a rather ordinary ship, no bigger than your average fishing trawler; yet its contribution to modern biology is remarkable. In its 5-year journey, the Beagle had visited various parts of South America, crossed the Pacific Ocean to reach Australia and swung by Cape Town before returning to Britain. The impressionable Charles Darwin capitalized on its many expeditions to the tropics of the southern hemisphere and inspired him to ponder the origins of nature’s diversity. He unearthed fossils of ancient mammals, discovered an unprecedented number of new animal species and wrote prodigiously on botany, geology and his cultural experiences. Even without his ground-breaking theory, Darwin would have been well remembered as a pioneer in the field of biology.
Yet in spite of all this, Darwin sought to explain why variation was ubiquitous in the natural world. His big breakthrough came from the islands of Galapagos, where he famously observed finches with beaks that are well adapted to their environments. His theory on speciation- with emphasis on the gradual accumulation of favourable traits over time- was revolutionary because it challenged the longstanding belief that all living organisms are created and not evolved, much to the ire of the Church. What made natural selection even more remarkable was the simplistic nature of the theory, and how it was as elegant as it was parsimonious.
There was nothing grandiose or flamboyant about Darwin’s theory and it did not require a rigorous scientific grounding for appreciation- precisely why natural selection gained widespread acknowledgement so rapidly after its introduction. A study by the Pew Research Center showed that 97% of all scientists agree that evolution via natural processes drove speciation. This overwhelming support is backed by a thorough body of research spanning multiple disciplines, from geology to comparative anatomy to molecular biology, and remains to be one of the most rigorously tested (and true) hypotheses in scientific literature.
Unfortunately, this degree of acceptance does not permeate into the greater society. Only 30-40% of the general American public accepts the theory of evolution, and efforts to remove or limit the teaching of evolution in schools have split the nation down the middle, heralding a possible crisis in scientific literacy. Though much of the resistance against ‘Darwinism’ is due to its irreconcilability with religious accounts of creationism, its antagonism is also fuelled (and complicated) by other factors such as a decline in scientific education, general apathy and the theory’s negative socio-political connotations.
A little closer to home, the situation in Malaysia is even bleaker. Evolution has been systematically omitted from biology textbooks and the syllabus is laced with theistic notions of creation – a likely attempt to preserve God appreciation and piety. This mirrors the state of affairs in America, where understanding of Darwin’s theory is negatively correlated to religious adherence. Indeed, no official census regarding this issue has been conducted and it would be fair to say that evolution is still an issue that is often swept under the carpet.
Unfortunately, there is a fog of apathy and ignorance – both in America and in Malaysia – obscuring any fruitful discussion of evolution, a subject that is hailed to be amongst the most important scientific discoveries before the turn of the century. As the scientific community honour Charles Darwin’s life, others choose to preserve their archaic worldviews and sideline the works of a scientific maverick- one who has long joined the ranks of Galileo, Newton and Einstein.
(Citations and sources are available upon request)
Chien Young is a fourth year medical student at the University of Western Australia.