OSB archive
OSB archive

Darwin 200: CD: 21st Century scientist

Pete Wilton

All this week we're celebrating Darwin and the advances in evolutionary theory that have built upon his work.

From The Beagle to the beard Charles Darwin and his world seem rather distant from our lives today: little wonder perhaps, as so much has changed in 200 years.

But how does Darwin match up to the 21st Century scientist? This is one of the intriguing questions Paul Harvey of Oxford's Department of Zoology addresses in an article to appear in the Journal of Biology.

He argues that Darwin posed many of the same sorts of questions as  biologists working today. 'He set the research agenda that many still follow: as Dobzhansky famously put it “nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.'

As Paul comments he could not have known how to pursue the great unknowns in genetics, or how developmental biology would be incorporated into mainstream evolutionary theory 'But he did frame many of the unsolved questions for what we would now call organismic biology.'

'He appreciated the importance of sexual selection, that something generally kept sex ratios around 50:50, that altruism must evolve by some interesting process, that distastefulness and warning colouration are in some sense adaptations. He didn't exactly know how these things evolved, and even explicitly left some problems to be solved in the future.'

Darwin may have needed others to come up with the elegant algebra to identify what would evolve as conditions changed 'But, as a 21st Century scientist, his correspondents would have included some theoreticians who could better develop his ideas and force him to state his assumptions with greater clarity.'

In other ways, however, Darwin was a scientist of his time: who, in a more gentlemanly age of scientific reporting which did not give so much weight to publishing first, was determined to reflect at length and not rush out his results.

'Indeed, he went further and argued that his career had taught him that there had not been an example when he has regretted holding back on publication,' Paul notes. 'The published product, he argued, was all the better for repeated polishing and tinkering. That is virtually unthinkable nowadays, with so many Wallace orthologues in the woodwork. The balance has shifted increasingly towards achieving priority.'

Here was a scientist who got better with age or perhaps whose thought processes hardly seemed to age at all: 'there's no doubt in my mind that he could have kept on going for another lifetime - once you have set the conceptual foundation as he did, then the world opens up for you... We have to remind ourselves that, while Darwin was always learning, if he felt that a gradual accumulation of facts questioned a treasured conclusion, then he would revisit that conclusion and all that resulted from it.'

Professor Paul Harvey is Head of Oxford's Department of Zoology.

Read more of our Darwin special: worms & vertebrates, humanity's roots, birds, beaks & species, virus wars