"Darwin would marvel at scientific progress"

On Charles Darwin's 200th birthday – and the 150th of his Origin of Species – a biologist tells swissinfo about the revolutionary naturalist's contribution to science.

This content was published on February 12, 2009 - 08:22

Daniel Cherix, professor at Lausanne University's department of ecology and evolution, says this year – which will see many Darwin events held in Switzerland – is also a chance to straighten out a few misunderstandings about the great man and his work.

"During our stay, I observed the habits of some marine animals," noted Darwin at the beginning of Voyage of the Beagle, his journal on a five-year round-the-world trip to chart the coastline of South America.

The journey, which lasted from 1831 to 1836, made a massive contribution to modern science.

Darwin collected a wealth of fossils and beetles, which he found on the Galapagos Islands, and he studied the geology of the Cape Verde Islands and Patagonia. He also made a phenomenal number of observations.

Cherix says the journey was crucial to Darwin's theory of evolution via natural selection, which secured his place as a leading figure in modern biology.

swissinfo: Charles Darwin will be the centre of a lot of attention this year – a chance to rectify a few clichés. What are the main ones?

Daniel Cherix: The image that we have of Darwin – that of a wise old man with a long white beard. Darwin was 22 when he set off on the Beagle, a passionate young naturalist who dared to put forward revolutionary ideas.

As for his famous statement that "man is descended from monkeys" – a summary of Darwinism that still often pops up – that's a completely wrong interpretation of his theory. He never said whatsoever that man is descended from monkeys – rather, that the species in the hominid family are related and that there was a moment when they all had common ancestor. That's very different!

You have to understand that at the time humans were considered superior to every species of animal. When Darwin started to point out kinship between animals and humans, it was very shocking.

swissinfo: What was the scientific and intellectual context in which Darwin published his theory of evolution?

D.C.: Scientific and religious thought was based on an uncritical approach towards Genesis [that God created the world – and everything living in it – in six days]. From this came the idea that species didn't change and that the earth wasn't very old.

But brilliant people such as Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, or Lamarck, one of the first evolutionists, had already laid the foundations of modern biology.

swissinfo: So Darwin too was indebted to the period.

D.C.: Yes, it was a favourable environment. Many naturalists went on expeditions and collected material for identification by specialists. We consequently began to see connections between groups of plants or animals from Asia and Africa for example.

But what really pushed Darwin to publish The Origin of Species was an important figure who is often forgotten: Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist 14 years younger than Darwin who independently came to the same conclusions.

By explaining that evolution involves random mutations that take thousands, often millions, of years, Darwin and Wallace put forth a hypothesis that was really sensational for the time.

swissinfo: How is Darwin and his theory seen by science today?

D.C.: Science advances thanks to leaps – forwards as well as backwards. If one rereads Darwin word for word, some bits are clearly dated bearing in mind what we know now – everything to do with inheritance for example, even if his basic intuition was right.

Not knowing about the existence of genes and the work of Mendel [the Austrian "father of genetics", born in 1822, who studied the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants], Darwin reasoned from his observations of the animal and plant world. He noticed that in a population no two individuals are identical. The small differences vary depending on the environment and can be crucial for survival. He deduced that such evolution could result in new species.

With our modern scientific instruments we've been able to confirm that everything involving mutations, recombination [the process by which genetic material is broken and joined to other genetic material during reproduction], variations and the adaption of species to their environment is to a large part correct.

swissinfo: And what would Darwin make of modern science?

D.C.: I imagine he would marvel at the progress made in the technical sciences, in biology and in our knowledge of the universe. But he might also be disappointed, because despite all our instruments, many questions remain unanswered and there are many observations which we can't explain.

swissinfo-interview: Carole Wälti

Charles Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin was born in England on February 12, 1809, into a family of doctors.

Having studied medicine and theology, he turned to natural history and in 1831 joined the HMS Beagle on an expedition to chart the coastline of South America.

The voyage lasted almost five years, with Darwin spending most of the time on land investigating geology and making natural history collections, which he sent home.

In 1859 he published his seminal work "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life".

In 1872 he published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this, Darwin set out evidence that humans are animals.

Darwin died on April 19, 1882. He was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to Sir Isaac Newton.

In September 2008 the Church of England issued an article saying that the 200th anniversary of his birth was a fitting time to apologise to Darwin, a self-confessed agnostic, "for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still".

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All living organisms – from humans to mountain goats to edelweiss – are distant cousins and have evolved, through random genetic mutations and the non-random process of natural selection, from a single self-replicating molecule that popped into existence by chemical chance some 3.5 billion years ago.

In natural selection, organisms with traits that are best suited ("fittest") to their particular environment are more likely to survive and reproduce than their rivals. Thus genes, the units of inheritance, that build successful "survival machines" get passed on and fill up the gene pool more than less successful genes.

Evolution via natural selection explains how simple organisms can, over millions of years, result in complex organisms seemingly designed for their environment without requiring any supernatural designer or creator.

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