Evolution, by definition, is merely the act of changing. The biological definition of evolution, however is a much more specific and complicated process. “Biological evolution… is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual.” (Futuyma, 1986). A common mistake that many people make is that evolution is progressive but in reality not one new species that comes about through evolution is greater than another. “When the philosopher Herbert Spencer popularized the term evolution to denote the natural development of life on earth, he certainly intended the impression of a necessary progress toward higher states. Most people still think that evolution is progressive, but Darwinism pioneered a rival model in which it is by no means clear that life must advance toward higher levels.” (Bowler 1983). Biological evolution refers to populations, not individuals. It is through these changes in populations that then must be passed down to the next generation. “The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in population that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next.” (Futuyma 1986). While the evolutionary theory has become widespread, many times the true concept of it has been misconstrued and while it is mostly identified with Charles Darwin, the history of this idea is much more complex than that.
The French naturalist Jean-Baptise Lamarck (1744-1829) argued that species change into different, new species over time in his Philosophie Zoologique (1809). The difference between Lamarck’s idea and Darwin’s idea, however, is that he believed species changed indefinitely from one form into another new form. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) stated that the animal kingdom was made up of four branches: vertebrates, mollucks, articulates and radiates, as well as established that past species had gone extinct. Cuvier “made it impossible to ignore the changes within the animal kingdom through geological time, and his system of relationships formed the framework within which the theory of common descent would be articulated” (Bowler 1983). Then, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) came out with On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which is the book that brought the concept of evolution to popularity and also brought a lot of controversy along with it. Darwin’s study of the Galapagos Islands and the birds that inhabited it led him on his journey of the development of his famous works on evolution; it is there that he became aware of the variety of species that inhabited the islands. He then came up with his theory of natural selection that stated that those living organisms that were better adapted to the environment were able to reproduce more offspring and thus they would then increase more generation to generation. “In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and in which any way favoured the individuals of any species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.” (Darwin 1859).
Mendel’s theory of heredity eventually came to blend together with Darwin’s theories, which resulted in the synthetic theory of evolution. In Mendelian inheritance, variation is able to work because it allows the “extreme genetic types” to be passed down from generation to generation. Mendelism helped Darwin’s theory of natural selection because with Mendelian heredity, genes are then kept over time. Futuyma states in Evolutionary Biology that:
“The major tenets of the evolutionary synthesis, then, were that populations contain genetic variation that arises by random… mutation and recombination; that populations evolve by changes in gene frequency brought about by random genetic drift, gene flow and especially natural selection; that most adaptive genetic variants have individually slight phenotypic changes are gradual; that diversification comes about by speciation, which normally entails the gradual evolution of reproductive isolation among populations; and that these processes, continued for sufficiently long, give rise to changes of such great magnitude as to warrant the designation of higher taxonomic levels.” (Futuyma 1986)
The modern synthesis differs from Darwin’s theory in three major points. First of all, it recognizes several mechanisms of evolution along with natural selection. Secondly, it recognizes that characteristics are inherited by genes. Finally, it recognizes the idea that speciation, in most cases, is due to the gradual process of small genetic changes.
Even with all the progress pertaining to the theory of evolution, there are still those that remain resistant to it. The most obvious controversy is that over science and religion. Many people do not believe that creationism and evolution can co-exist. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925 concerned a Tennessee law that prohibited public schools to teach the theory of evolution. More recently, in 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects on state standardized tests. In 2005, in Denver, Pennsylvania, the local school board voted to make it a requirement for teachers to read about intelligent design before starting discussions of evolution in high school biology classes. It is quite obvious that the arguments and conflicts over creationism and evolution will not stop any time soon, but the progress the theory of evolution has made and the impact it has had on how the world is viewed today is undeniable.
“Modern creationists accept a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story in which the earth was formed only a few thousand years ago. All animal and plant species were miraculously created by God, and all the fossil-bearing rocks were deposited during Noah’s flood.” (Bowler 1986). The modern creationism movement is largely American in origin. Creationists partake in debate against evolutionists because they believe there isn’t a possible way for creationism and evolution to co-exist.
“Clearly, the Darwinian revolution is not yet completed. The assumption of Christian creationists that an attack on evolution must automatically generate support for a biblical view of human origins cannot be left unchallenged in any multicultural society.” (Bowler 1986). There are, however, a view instances where there has been compromises made between religion and science. For example, “Deists would soon begin to argue for a God who was merely a designer, and who left the universe to function without involving Himself in history.” (Torrey 1930).
A good example of evolution represented through modern culture is a video on youtube.com titled “Evolution Comic Strip”. The video is in comic strip form and it involves a debate between a teacher and a student over evolution; it is a response to the comic strip “Big Daddy?” by Jack T Chick which argues for creationism. The student is a creationist and argues for The Bible while the teacher goes through scientific reasons why evolution is the plausible theory for why the earth is the way that it is today. This comic strip is entertaining as well as educational because it represents the ongoing debate between creationism and evolution and also gives many interesting facts about evolution that help inform the viewers about the misconceptions held about evolution. One thing that can be seen as a downfall to the comic strip is its obvious lack of openness to creationists’ beliefs. It acts as if one must choose between science and religion, while many people have found ways to hold on to their faith while still accepting evolution as a plausible theory.
Evolution means change, but even more specifically it is the change in living things between generations. According to evolution, the forms of organisms can be modified from their ancestors. The concept of evolution does not include the developmental change of an organism during its lifetime, but instead is a change over generations. Evolution, as defined by Darwin, is “descent with modification”. Evolution is not something that is predictable, it depends on factors such as the environment that the populations inhabit and the genetic variants. The change of living things over time is the main theme that comes about in the evolutionary theory. The ideas underlying evolution have morphed throughout the years and after lots of extensive research, but Darwin’s basic theory has lasted through all of the controversy and speculation and today evolution is the most widely held belief among scientists to explain how the world has come about to be the way it is today.
Bowler, Peter J. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California, 1983. Print.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Sterling, 1859. Print.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Sterling, 1859. Print.
Futuyma, D.J. Evolutionary Biology. Sinnauer Associates, 1986. Print.
Norman, Torrey L. Voltaire and the English Deists. New Haven: Yale UP, 1930. Print.