Understanding Darwin: The legacy of evolution

As I’ve already mentioned, I was off in Philadelphia this past weekend, participating in a symposium entitled “Understanding Darwin: The legacy of evolution”. I was a bit amazed to be there, since this was primarily a history and philosophy event with several big names in those fields, and I’m an itty-bitty biologist with more of a popular following than an academic one, but I was also glad to be involved and learned quite a bit, hob-nobbing with the big shots. Here’s a short summary of the content of the talks.

John Beatty talked about Natural Selection of & Versus Chance Variation. He began with a discussion of Gould’s classic metaphor of ‘rewinding life’s tape’ and asking what would happen on replay. Recently, everyone thinks of Lenski’s experiments with bacteria in this context, and Beatty discussed those, but he also pointed out that Darwin’s studies of orchid morphology are also beautiful examples of developmental contingencies, of diversity by chance. That stuff is going to end up in one of my Seed columns soon, I think.

Rasmus Winther gave an overview of systems thinking in a talk titled Systemic Darwinism. He made the case that there are three different kinds of evolutionary thinking: evolutionary genetics, where we’re concerned with gene frequencies over time, cladistics, which is all about changes in character state distributions over time, and self-organization, or change in the organization of parts over time (that last, I thought, was a rather peculiar definition). Darwin, while lacking the specifics of modern fields like genetics, seems to have been a good systems thinker, who tried to address different modes of thought in his own work.

This guy PZ Myers rambled on about Haeckel, embryos, and the phylotypic stage. He tried to make the self-evident case that there are some simple facts, observations of embryo similarities, and that there are interpretations of those facts, which ranged from Haeckel’s recapitulation to von Baer’s differentiation from the general to the specific to more modern models of global gene regulation, and that we have to be careful not to let models overwhelm the data (Winther phrased it succinctly: watch out for the reification of abstractions). I contrasted the errors and excess of zeal of someone like Haeckel with modern creationist mangling, which is malicious and unscholarly, and tries to deny the observations.

Jane Maienschein discussed Embryos in Evolution and History. I had already run roughshod over a chunk of her talk—we both talked a fair bit about Ernst Haeckel—but she had much more breadth to her story, since she also brought in Entwicklungsmechanik and 20th century embryologists and developmental biologists. Rather than railing against the affront of creationism in contemporary science, she focused on stem cell research, and how it is changing earlier preconceptions about the nature of differentiation.

And now for something completely different — Janet Browne talked about Charles Darwin and the Natural Economy of Households. She has this wealth of information about Darwin, one of the best documented figures in modern history, and she was intrigued by one peculiar observation. Francis Galton had sent out a questionnaire to many prominent people, surveying attitudes and backgrounds, and one question asked the respondents to list their special talents. Darwin’s answer was surprising. He said he had none, except for business! He regarded himself as an extremely successful businessman, first of all. It actually was true: all of Darwin’s account books are extant, and he was a guy who wrote down everything, from the purchase of a toothbrush to major railroad investments, and it’s all there.

At his wedding, the Darwin family financial seed was £10,000 granted to Charles and £10,000 to Emma. From this grew a fortune that, in the year before his death, was about £282,000. That’s a lot of money: Darwin’s expedition on the Beagle cost his father about £5,000, which was enough to buy a very nice house in those days, so Darwin was the equivalent of a modern multi-millionaire.

Browne argued that this talent was put to good use in his science. Like his accounts, he was a meticulous observer, noting everything. Further, accountancy taught him important principles of organization and abstraction. He kept day-to-day books of all expenses, which he then transcribed to books organized by category of expenses, which were further abstracted into yearly account books that summarized the totals. This is the same kind of methodology he used in tracking observations in natural history. She also noted that his diligence also reflected a common Malthusian sentiment of the times, that virtue was found in the proper management of money and resources.

I wondered whether this gradual and seemingly inevitable accumulation of wealth might also have colored Darwin’s perception of how evolution might work, but Browne was careful to say that she was only focusing on the application of Darwin’s business skills to his scientific methodology, and wasn’t saying anything about it’s application to his theory.

It was a great and stimulating meeting, and special appreciation has to go to Michael Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania, who organized it all. At least 4 of the 5 talks were excellent. And really, people, tune in to your local universities — these kinds of events are going on all the time, and they’re often open to the public — you can get a marvelous education for free just by watching for the public seminars that university departments put on. We’re the opposite of elitist, we welcome everyone who wants to learn.


  1. OhioBrian says

    I’m curious — where did the event take place? Academy of Natural Sciences? Penn’s museum, maybe? I went to college in Philly and loved it, so I’m hankering for a visual.

  2. says

    Human economy, writ large, does appear to have played a large role in forming Darwin’s conceptions of evolution.

    So I don’t think it’s just a matter of attention to detail, if it’s beyond question that paying heed to “the pathetic level of detail” in evolution is the virtue of evolutionary theory, by contrast with meandering impressionism and whim in ID.

    Glen D

  3. Realist Golfer says

    “tune in to your local universities — these kinds of events are going on all the time, and they’re often open to the public — you can get a marvelous education for free just by watching for the public seminars that university departments put on. We’re the opposite of elitist, we welcome everyone who wants to learn.”

    I’m sure most know, but a terrific resource is at iTunes>Podcasts>iTuneU…..hundreds of excellent lectures in Podcast format, some really good stuff…check it out

  4. T. Bruce McNeely says

    I just read the article by “brainy surgeon” Egnor.
    I wouldn’t let that guy pop a pimple.

  5. Tim says

    Eugenics?, nobody even begins to understand human genetics enough to tell people who should reproduce. Better to strive for a society where both ends of the curve do well, since there’s no telling what our descendants will need.

  6. ajay says

    Running the numbers, it looks like Darwin managed a 26% annual return on capital, which is damned impressive given that the stock market grew about 7% a year in the same period. He’d have made a tremendous fund manager if he hadn’t wasted his time with all this natural history nonsense.

  7. Holbach says

    Can any name but that of the great Charles Darwin evoke what we as rationalists encompass all that is devoid in religion? There may have been another in his place, but he is the personification of reason from his day to now. We certainly will keep his ideals and memory alive as the need is ever so vital against the crud of unreason.

  8. JoeB says

    Er, ajay, running the numbers, I get a return of 6.3%.
    A generation ago, Al Bartlett, a physics prof at Colorado, used to talk to Rotary Clubs and such about the exponential function. Al thought its use might be the most important mathematical skill we all should acquire in our general education.
    To apply it “in your head”, use the fact that annual rate times doubling time equals a constant, usually taken as 72. (It is really 69.3, which math sophisticates might recognize as 100 times the natural log of 2). Since 20k -> 282k is a bit under four doublings, the 42 years Darwin lived from marriage to death (-1) gives us about an 11 year doubling time. This into 69 gives a bit over 6% annual increase. Doing it on a calculator gives 6.3%.
    Of course he spent capital, had other sources of income, inherited goodly sums when his father died (Emma from her father also, I think). The fact remains, he was a good money manager and a sound investor.

  9. Touch of Grey says

    “Here’s a short summary of the content of the talks.”

    It sounds to me like these people are about 20 years behind the curve.

    “The Darwinian paradigm holds that copying mistakes and the shuffling of existing genes are sufficient to write the new genes needed for evolutionary advances. Cosmic Ancestry holds that these processes cannot write useful new genes. Instead, for a species to make evolutionary progress, new genes must first be installed into its genome from outside.”

  10. Touch of Grey says

    “Darwin and genes? WTF? Genes were far after Darwin.

    Right, and there were no quarks before Murray Gell-Mann.

    Oh, wait a minute, didn’t James Joyce “invent” them in “Finnegan’s Wake”?

    “Three quarks for Muster Mark. …”

  11. Owlmirror says

    Cosmic Ancestry holds that these processes cannot write useful new genes.

    Science-Fiction Does Not Count As Science.


  12. Modeller says

    Speaking of lectures PZ, I’d be really curious to see your post about future evo-devo research directions. What do you think is hot now? What is your lab working on? What is your vision for evo-devo experimental and computational biology?

  13. Nerd of Redhead says

    It’s just Charlie Wagner blithering again.

    Ahhh..gross ignorance, like Teno. That explains the WTF moment.