It’s a bit like first-year advising, only it’s Darwin

Earlier this week I was asked to write something for This View of Life and Darwin Day: what would surprise, delight, and possibly disturb Darwin about modern evolutionary biology? I did, but I guess it didn’t make the cut: you can find the better ones at What Would Darwin Think About Modern Darwinism?

It’s OK that they didn’t print mine, because now on this busy day I can just reuse it as blog fodder.

I think I could simultaneously appall and enlighten Darwin with one revelation. In his autobiography, Darwin said that “I deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.” That failing was particularly acute in his inability to discover a valid principle of heredity, a deficiency in his theory that was being quietly filled by an Austrian monk meticulously documenting the results of crosses of pea plants, coupled to some mathematical insights.

What would most surprise a time-traveling Darwin, I suspect, is how rigorously mathematical evolutionary theory has become. He’s going to have to learn some probability and statistics to understand even papers from the 1930s; it will require some hard work, but I’m sure that Fisher and Wright and Haldane will delight him. Modern computational methods will require even more retraining, but it will be worth it — we can spring molecular biology on the poor man, and bioinformatics will dazzle him.

He’ll be able to appreciate the power the principles of mathematics have added to his theory, but he’ll also quickly learn that he’s a relatively innumerate naif who will have to learn everything from the ground up. As a competent, disciplined, and brilliant person, though, I’m sure he’ll be able to master it all.


  1. leerudolph says

    The Cambridge “Tripos” system was a disaster for English mathematical pedagogy (and research) in his day. I’m sure that today Darwin (even if he had to be brought back as a “returning student” rather than with the vigor of youth…) could get much better instruction in “the great leading principles of mathematics”.

  2. jaybee says

    I think one (the?) reason yours wasn’t published there is there is another paper taking a somewhat more upbeat view of the same issue you touched on, titled “Gratified by Mathematics”.

  3. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    Well, it was a bit obvious. Clearly everyone’s greatest regret is not knowing enough mathematics. This applies at all levels of mathematical attainment.