The Evolution of the theory Evolution

The Evolution of the theory Evolution

In today’s world Biology plays an important role.  It provides us with means to staying alive as well as the understanding of how we are alive and where we came from.  Our origins have been a question that’s eluded our knowledge since our conception. Many a scientists have embarked on the quest to understand our origin.  Over the centuries it seems as though we are getting closer to the answer.  A description of the process of the theory of Evolution and its various components helps lend insight to our understanding.

Prior to the Age of Reason and the centuries preceding, the common understanding of our geological world was one highly dependent on scripture and Biblical account.  The majority of geological formations were attributed to catastrophic events depicted in these scriptures. After some several hundred years, people began to reevaluate these explanations.  “Adamant about explaining the history of the earth as recorded in Scriptures entirely within the frame of natural science”(Gould, 223), Thomas Burnet provide a theory of Geology devoid of divine intervention.  Though his theory of the world, a hollow shell filled with water, was devised to give mathematical validation to Noah’s Great Flood, Burnet was adamant that God designed the world right the first time and that geological processes still follow his original design, an early form of uniformitarianism.

Around the same time as Brunet theories towards the origin of the Earth, a scientist by the name of Nicholas Steno was analyzing the geology of his present day.  Through his observations Steno derived one of the more prolific Laws of Geology.  The Law super positioning, which explains the horizontal formations of rock strata, helped us further understand geological formations without relying on catastrophic events.  During his Geological studies Steno often came across the fossils of ancient animals. During particular instance while working in Malta, Steno came across “rocks”, referred to as tongue-stones, that bared the resemblance of sharks’ teeth.   He hypothesized that these were not rocks that appeared to be sharks teeth but that rather at one time long ago belonged to a prehistoric shark.  This theory coincided with his Law of super positioning such that “bodies had already become hard at the time when the earth and rock containing them was still fluid” (Steno, 28), the liquid body being the ocean that once accommodated the shark, and along time after the shark died, receded and left behind horizontal layering indicating its past presence. Steno, however, was not the only person to notice and theorize about these peculiar rocks.

In an excerpt of his book Micrographia, Robert Hooke analyzes the composition of petrified wood.  In his investigation Hooke is hesitant to believe the wood to simply be rock resembling tree bark, the common perception of the time. Instead he proposes the notion of a petrifying liquid that changed the physical properties of the wood, so that it now behaved as if was made of rock.  Hooke’s findings were so successful it was the first ever scientific best seller. Published by the Royal Society, the book helped spread the field of Microscopy, as well as display the importance of Royal Society as a medium for scientific discussion.

The role of the Royal Society in science has been a prolific one to say the least. Founded on the basis of improving natural knowledge in a democratic manner, the Royal Society has provided the means for many scientists to present their ideas and theories. By providing publishing to scientists the Society has granted the public access to some of the most important scientific findings of all time.   However, at one point in time the Society’s generosity almost dismantled the organization.  This calamity occurred when society agreed to fund the publishing of The History of Fishes; the publication had such bad returns the Society was nearly financially crippled.  That is not to say that The History of Fishes didn’t have an impact on science.  The author of the book, John Ray, was the first scientist to present the idea of species, a concept that would play a great role in the ever-expanding field of Biology.

As far as organizing the animal kingdom went, there was two naturalists who had two distinctly different ideas as to how things should be organized.  The famous naturalists Carl Linnaeus held one of these opinions.  Linnaeus devised a system that placed the animals in a hierarchal system of general and specific animal groupings.  These groupings, referred to as genus and species, arranged the animals by structural characteristics.  His organization was highly opposed by the French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon was considered to be a rival of Linnaeus, as he basically disagreed with everything Linnaeus brought forth.  His discrepancy towards Linnaeus’s organization was due to the fact that “he felt a direct implication of the Linnaean classification to be the inference that all the species in one family were descended from a common ancestor” (Buffon, 26).  He further disputed the arrangement by arguing that the system presented a hierarchy to the animal kingdom. The ironic part of all of this was the position in which both the men took towards classifications obviously opposed their theories of organic change. Though his classification clearly suggested it, Linnaeus unequivocally opposed evolutionary theory. While Buffon was completely aware of the connection between a changing environment and changes in species, he passionately opposed a system that reinforced his theories.

As the successor to the previously mentioned Buffon, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the first of many to really push for and explain a theory of organic change. However, his theories were based off a theory different than most.  Lamarck believed that the habits of animals led to changes in structure, such that when a Giraffe wants to reach the really high leafs of a tree, the Giraffe’s “life force” makes its neck longer.  This perception caused Lamarck to deny the concept of extinction believing that if habit led to change, an animal was capable of preventing its own extinction.  As theories on evolution began to proliferate many opponents began to notice the contradictions towards the Bible that the theory of evolution brought forth.

As proponent to the theory and a devote Christian, Robert Chambers was determined to formulate a theory to incorporate the two viewpoints.  In his anonymously published; Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation Chambers uses his knowledge geological change to present a much older earth. The aged earth he presents gives time to incorporate organic change. The change Chambers describes is of natural law, which is “an expression of His [God’s] will” (Vestige, 345).   The idea that the age of the Earth, as interpreted by the readings of Genesis, was around 6000 years had continually been a thorn in the side of the theory of evolution.  However, as time progressed Geology began to shed light on the true age of the Earth.

An investigation of the age of the Earth, contrary to Genesis, first began with Sir Edmond Halley.  Halley, a member of the Royal Society, came up with idea of measuring the increase in salinity of the oceans as a way to age the Earth. Though he never performed the calculation he suggested that it would show the Earth to be a lot older than previously thought.

Similar to Halley, a naturalist Charles Lyell believed the earth was a lot older then common belief.  Lyell, a key contributor to Charles Darwin, was a renowned geologist of is day. In his book, The Principles of Geology, Lyell presents the theory of uniformitarianism. He uses this theory to convey an aged Earth, by saying that the current geological processes that act on the Earth now, acted the same way centuries past, this thinking is the basis of the theory of Uniformitarianism.  However, even though he derived evidence-supporting evolution, Lyell was hesitant to consider the theory, that was until Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Placed on a boat to keep a manic-depressive Capitan from jumping overboard, little was expected of Charles Darwin during the voyage of the HMS Beagle. Inspired by the writings of Lyell in The Principles of Geology, Darwin began interpreting and theorizing about the various landscapes he encountered in his voyage.  His profound findings occurred when he arrived in the Galapagos Islands.  While here, Darwin began to notice distinct features of this extremely isolated ecosystem.  Darwin took particular interest in different variations of finch that resided on the chain of islands. In analyzing the beaks, color, and sizes of the finches Darwin’s theory of evolution began to take shape.  He noticed that the newly discovered species of finches were located in various different types of vegetation and geological formations. Darwin notice that the variations in beak sizes helped accommodate the finch better with its specific environment. Darwin proposed that the finches’ acquired these traits when the finches with less beneficial traits died without reproducing, and the ones who survived passed their traits on. He went on to say that the beneficial adaptations were passed down to generations of finch; so that they might prevail over lesser Finch, he coined this component of evolution as Natural Selection.  Some questions regarding the theory of evolution still lingered however.

Many people were unable to fathom the idea of changes happening over millennia, yet alone that the Earth was that old. A solution to this problem present itself when Darwin was in Chile. While in Chile Darwin experienced an earthquake that sent the ground shooting up three feet.  He came the realization that if in a single, large, infrequent earthquake was capable of raising the earth three feet; it would take millions on millions of year to form the current mountain ranges. The age of the earth was further validated with then discovery of half-lives in radioactive materials.  Having known quantities of radioactive material a rough estimate of the age of the world was easily obtained. The age presented, as predicted, gave a timeline that handily incorporated Darwin’s theory.

A naturalist named Thomas Robert Malthus put the final piece of the puzzle in place for Darwin.  Malthus, an esteemed economists and demographer, presented the idea of exponential population growth and finite food supply. This concept helped solidify the notion of competition in the animal kingdom, as well as extinction in species.  With his theory in place and justified, Darwin was ready to present it to the world.

On arriving back in England five years later, Darwin had lot of work ahead of him. He enlisted the help of the man who had inspired his research, Charles Lyell.  Over many years Darwin, with the help of his mentor Lyell, wrote his historic On the Origin of Species.  But just as Chambers had done a few years earlier, Darwin hesitated to publish. He was worried about public backlash and scrutiny from the scientific community.  Even with the persistence of his mentor Darwin wouldn’t publish, that was until he received a letter from Alfred Wallace. To Darwin’s horror the letter from Wallace described a theory similar to his described in his life’s work.  But rather than putting the letter in the trash and running to the publisher, Darwin responded to Wallace with his findings as well as encouragement for Wallace to publish his findings. Darwin and Wallace then both published their ideas, and over several decades of deliberation and supporting evidence, we arrived at our current knowledge.

These occurrences help us understand the nature of science.  Having come up with a similar theory as Darwin, Wallace demonstrates the parallelism within Science and the persistence within human understanding. The events show us how inevitably mankind will indeed find an answer to all its questions, it just takes the right people, technology, precedence, and a little bit of luck for it to happen.

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