August 7, 2008

The Genius of Charles Darwin

I've always been relatively vague on the topic of evolution after never getting around to studying it properly, and the minor forays I made to read some evolution websites turned up far too many 'debate' sites for me to discern between the facts of evolution from the controversies. Although I could guess at the rationale behind ideas such as natural selection, it was too fuzzy and vague for me to understand properly.

So it was a certain amount of delight that I watched Channel 4's 'The Genius of Charles Darwin', a 3-parter to commemorate nearly 150 years of Darwin's famous work 'On The Origin of Species'. Needless to say, this series of documentaries would provide a clear account of evolution and also some fair discussion of controversy. And to top it all off, it was presented by none other than Richard Dawkins, one of the astoundingly clear science writers of our time, to say the least!

Dawkins is often criticised for his strident pro-atheism tone - and when you get past this to view his credentials as an evolutionary biologist, you find that he is unfairly criticised as a "PR man for evolution" as was said recently by Tom Wolfe. I disagree, because more people pay attention to Dawkins' atheist critique than they do to his science tomes and it isn't difficult to see that he is actually in a position to know what he's talking about. I think there is an undercurrent of envy where Dawkins is concerned as it's quite a feat to have your first book still in print 32 years after it was first published and still as popular as ever, selling over a million copies and being translated into 25 languages. What to speak of the fact that it was required reading for me as a psychology undergraduate. So no, after having read his works (and criticised some of them too) I do have an enduring respect for Dawkins as a voice of authority in his field.

The first programme was more or less a biography of Darwin and described his travels to the Galapagos Islands whereby he embarked on a scientific voyage of discovery in terms of his evolutionary findings. It was a delight to follow his incredulity as discovering two slightly different types of rhea and wondering why, according to the paradigm of his day, God had created these types and indeed why different variations are found among all types of species. It became clear that as Darwin found more and more examples of variation amongst species, they counted as evidence piling up to discount the Biblical account of creation. And furthermore, these variations become specialised (natural selection) due to the influence of the environment. Eventually with slow progress (over millions of years), these variations may become so specialised that the entity can be considered an entirely different species. Conversely, species who do not develop crucial survival skills are driven extinct by natural processes. Dawkins gave a fascinating example during his narrative that was graphically illustrated with footage: Imagine a world where predators, over several generations, improve and enhance their hunting capabilities by means of sharper teeth, faster legs and general all-round improvement in order to catch their prey, yet also the prey develops with faster legs in order to run away from said predator! Dawkins described it as an escalation, even as a type of "arms race". Fascinating.

But what was even more fascinating than that is when he avoided the 'simian ---> man' paradigm that religionists have a major problem with by discussing how man is involved in a similar arms race with viruses, observing how the majority of the current European population are the descendants of those who fortunately survived medieval plagues which gives support to the natural selection idea. While there are an abundance of lethal and potentially lethal viruses around, one of the biggest ones today is HIV/AIDS. Dawkins broached the topic of reports of human resistance to the HIV-virus, even visiting a Kenyan sex worker to briefly interview her about her supposed resistance. The implications of this are astounding and were outlined clearly: As some individuals have an in-built resistance to HIV locked away in their genotypes they will survive and pass their genes to the next generation to bring about 'stronger' and HIV-resistant humans, whereas unfortunate individuals who contract HIV that develops into AIDS will be driven extinct by such natural processes. Natural selection is a cruel mechanism indeed.

OK, I'm aware that I'm discussing all of this in very brief terms but, what else can be done? This all goes to show how biological evolution is the driving mechanism of life. More exciting issues are certain to be raised in the next two parts of this series. A small example of this was given in the form of a brief interview with Craig Venter, one of those who mapped the human genome. This stupendous piece of scientific achievement is enough evidence to prove that evolution is a fact, as it shows a significantly large amount of genes is shared by all forms of life.

Almost predictably, opposition to evolution was represented by 15-year-old children in a school science class that Dawkins attended to lecture. I felt it was an attempt at poignancy in the sense of educating the next generation. But it was definitely embarrassing trying to watch a bunch of 15-year-olds tangle with an Oxford professor. Their scepticism and criticisms of evolution were horribly ignorant, weak with foundations in religious beliefs and upbringing, and were terrible and cringeworthy to watch. But rather than spend too much time directly discrediting these beliefs Dawkins chose to make the topic of atheism an implied conclusion of evolution and also of the programme as a 'sub plot', with various types of digs made throughout the programme. I think that the programme was spoilt by this as it wasn't terribly necessary to discuss or even critique the idea of creation as "God's handiwork" except just to mention how Darwin himself realised this, which was already done earlier in the programme. It seems symptomatic of Dawkins that every time he gets a chance to take the floor he takes the opportunity to have a jab at religion and this gets tiring after a while. It wouldn't matter so much in a documentary that specifically discusses religion and religious issues (like his own 'Root of All Evil' series) but I would have thought that a science documentary would have focused almost entirely on the mechanics of evolution. Either way, the anti-religion jabs weren't too bad and were only indulged in to show the schoolkids how wrong they were by taking them to a beach and inviting them to find their own mini-fossils and unusual rock formations that point to a history of the earth longer than that delineated in old scriptures. Although this little outing succeeded in making the kids think a bit more deeply about their beliefs, none of them gave them up on television. As Dawkins put it, spending a few hours with these kids is no competition for a lifetime of religious indoctrination.

All in all, a good programme and a breath of fresh air. Plenty of whoa to keep me interested. I'll be looking forward to the next installments.


  1. I am fully schooled in the wily wicked ways of evolution, yet your summary here makes me want to watch it right now anyway.

    And I can already feel my own cringe at the schoolchildren.

    #1 most simple evidence we all evolved from a common ancestor: we all share the exact same genetic code, specifying the exact same 20 amino acids that make up our proteins (with a few minor exception).


  2. Charles would loath seeing the title 'genius' - classified his intelligence as average and fair - and would turn in his grave if he knew a 3 part documentary was made of his.
    First of all, Charles noticed the ever present variations stemming after certain amounts of time - instead of speculating on why this phenomenon occurs, Dawkins and others choose to make Charles a log and worship him.
    Charles was a human, given that name by his parents, and his last name represents a man who lived a long time ago and liked the name 'darwin' over 'smith'.
    He was normal like everyone else, and if it wasn't for a tip, we'd now be arguing that 'Wallacism' shows the religious are wrong, etc.
    The most complex aspects of nature lie completely beyond our reach, even how aspects of a peice of grass knows where to send energy trapped from photosynthesis is an example (upper or lower, how does it know not to grow downward, how does it know automatically to trap sunlight, etc, etc).
    I wish Richard spent more time on the causes of nature's varieties, exploring genetics, rather than focusing on Humans.. and pretending that it matters some old man existed 200 years ago who had the fixed idea that all life was some sort of transition from an original organism... Is it true, what other mysteries can we look into from this? Instead of answering these questions, idiots focus on humans and human affairs, not realizing there is no such thing as natural selection, dna, and the like.. these are just agreed upon forms of gibberish some man ultimately invented to label some phenomena.. I hope my rant makes sense, I just wish people spent more time expanding our ignorance and the wonders of nature rather than focusing on 'words like darwinism, natural selection, and the like'. Charles Darwin could've been called Alfonso.. but his parents chose Albert for him.. imagine us talking about Alfonsoism.. or 'Fordism' when we talk about cars. Some humans are too specialized to realize how stupid and innocent they are.. but since they memorized so many fixed ideas at Oxford they figure they can force their other human cohorts to memorize the same ideas.
    (Charles Darwin and Natural selection has nothing whatever to do with religion, it has to do with humans and the gibberish they use to call things in nature)