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Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
What Would Darwin Think?

An evolutionary biologist ponders Darwin's take on modern biology

By Massimo Pigliucci

With the approaching 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species,” which also happens to be Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, I am often asked, “What would Darwin think of modern biology if he were alive today?” It is a wonderful question, because of course there is no wrong answer to it. Darwin would, I think, both be bewildered and delighted at what biologists have discovered from the end of the 19th century to the dawn of the 21st. Much of the research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the past several decades has resulted in a spectacular explosion of knowledge in fields as varied as molecular genetics and genomics, physiology, developmental biology, evolutionary biology, systematics, phylogenetics and ecology. Not only have we recently decoded entire genomes of a variety of organisms, but we are moving toward modeling the complex interactions among networks of genes, trying to understand how they mold the intricate process of development. We have studied natural selection, arguably Darwin’s principal contribution to science, in his beloved Galapagos finches as well as in plants, microbes and even human beings. And we have developed sophisticated views of ecological interactions from studies of populations, communities of species, and entire ecosystems.

Nonetheless, there are some major puzzles in evolutionary biology that are still largely open to inquiry, and to which I am compelled to think Darwin would turn his attention. What distinguished Charles Darwin as a scientist was a rare combination of traits that helped make him one of the most influential scientists in the history of humanity. On the one hand he was a very keen naturalist, capable of spending years carefully collecting observations and conducting experiments about the natural world. On the other hand, he was always interested in the big ideas, bent on building a comprehensive theory that explains the history and diversity of living organisms.

In this sense, Darwin would feel right at home were he alive today. Biology is not only going through an impressive period of empirical discoveries, but many think it is at the threshold of major new theoretical insights. The current version of evolutionary theory is referred to as “the Modern Synthesis,” and was achieved during the 1930s and 1940s as a way to bring together Darwin’s original ideas (common descent of all organisms and natural selection) with the discoveries of the new science of genetics. It was an intellectual feat that took shape over a period of decades and set the agenda for evolutionary research ever since.

According to an increasing number of biologists, we may be approaching the formulation of a new, extended evolutionary synthesis for similar reasons. The molecular biology revolution has taken place entirely after the Modern Synthesis, and has brought us a wealth of novel and often unexpected information about the inner workings of living organisms. A new field of evolutionary developmental biology (so-called “evo-devo”) began to take shape as late as the 1990s, specifically to integrate developmental and evolutionary biology, something that was left out of the synthesis of the 1940s. Recent research focussed on a host of novel concepts, such as the idea that the evolutionary process itself changes over time (“evolvability”), the existence of non-genetic (so-called “epigenetic”) systems of inheritance, and the fact that natural selection acts at many levels of biological organization, from genes to individuals, from populations to entire species.

All of this poses exciting challenges for evolutionary biologists engaged in both empirical and theoretical research funded by the NSF. And Charles Darwin would be delighted to be alive today.

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Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University in New York. He is the recipient of the Society for the Study of Evolution’s 1997 Dobzhansky Prize, which recognizes the accomplishments of outstanding young evolutionary biologists.  He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science where he was elected “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.”  Pigliucci writes regularly for Skeptical Inquirer and Philosophy Now and his essays can be found online at www.rationallyspeaking.org. The National Science Foundation supports his research on evolutionary genetics and gene-environment interactions.

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Please see the Resources section for the Bibliography/Additional Reading list for this essay.