Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with Jim Secord
What do we know about natural selection that we didn’t know in Darwin’s time?
Well, I think there’s a huge range of areas where natural selection has actually expanded its scope of explanation. Darwin thought it could explain a lot, but even in the realm of species, he wasn’t sure that it could explain as much as we know that now it can.
Did the Galapagos Islands cause Darwin to immediately abandon fixity of species?
No, not at all. Darwin, in fact, really only started thinking that the whole problem of species might really be a real difficulty and that it was something that he ought to tackle. In the final closing stages of “The Voyage,” as he was going back across the Indian Ocean, and you can find it a little bit in some of his notebooks that he’s keeping on his specimens there. That’s the first doubts that were recorded. When he found the Galapagos, he basically thinks that the species that are there have been there for a long time and he certainly doesn’t think that they could’ve changed in anything like the sort of timescale that he was seeing around him.
How did these new revelations sit with his religious sensibilities?
And, in fact, at Cambridge, where Darwin had studied, Christian theology and geological ideas were generally seen to go hand-in-hand. His professors were actually reverends in the Anglican Church. They were ministers. So, basically, they saw very much that a Christian view was completely compatible with a geological sort of view. Where Darwin, in some sense, began to have more trouble, although not necessarily with everybody, was once he started talking about how species actually, not just there was a geological record about it, but that, in fact, there was some sort of evolution going on, and particularly it was problematical if it was shown to lead to human beings, but again, the possibility was always there of reconciling Christian doctrine and scientific ideas and many of Darwin’s contemporaries, and Darwin himself thought that there would be some sort of reconciliation.
What theories were “in the air” in London at the time Darwin lived there?
Well, I think if you went to London in 1837 when Darwin first moved there, it was – there was all sorts of discussion going on, and particularly in the medical communities, the community people who were studying questions of anatomy, if you went into the medical schools, there were a lot of new ideas, especially from France, that were coming in. His teacher from Edinburgh, Robert Edmond Grant, had actually moved down from Edinburgh into London while Darwin had been on his voyage and Grant just one of a number of people who agreed that there had been some sort of evolution of species, some sort of species change going on. There was also a lot of interest in how all animals shared certain common body plans, and these ideas, which were taken in from France, were often associated with medical reform and sometimes even with radical or revolutionary politics.
What made a natural selection theory inevitable, the science or the culture?
Well, I think at the period Darwin was working, in some sense, the culture was part of the science and the science was part of the culture. They were so closely linked, the debates, to take a position on some of these question was both, at one level, to take a scientific position, but it was also to take a position in the cultural debates that were going on at the time.
What will be the next major scientific discovery?
I think it’s very likely that there’s going to be new work that really tries to integrate the kind of broad-scale natural phenomena we see around us. It’s very complicated phenomena with the theories of natural selection and ways that help us to understand problems of extinction, speciation, climate change. A lot of this isn’t sudden discovery, bolt-out-of-the-blue kind of science, it’s science that works by accretion and I think, in many ways, that’s the leading area of science where we need to work. If we just focus on breakthroughs and big moments, we actually miss, in many ways, a lot of what's really going on in the leading frontiers of science now, which is actually, you know, people working out these questions in increments and really trying to see how to make things happen, and over the longer term, of course, those increments add up to something really big.