If he were still alive today, Charles Darwin would be proud of us. He’d also be 204 years old. But hey, he did coin the idea of survival of the fittest. Maybe he used his insight to discover the secret of eternal life and is currently surviving in great fitness on some tropical island in the Galapagos Archipelago. That’s pretty unlikely, but at least Darwin can rest easy knowing he made a pretty big impact on our world. Charles Darwin, of course, is the father of the theory of evolution. He traveled the world and viewed all different kinds of organisms, wrote a ground-breaking book “On The Origin of Species,” and changed scientific thought forever. He ascertained that all Earth’s species are descended from common ancestors, and through the process of natural selection, have been adapting and evolving and often becoming extinct, since the beginning of life. Simply put: if you can’t adapt to changes, your species is a goner.

So why would Darwin be proud of us? Darwin laid the foundation for a school of thought that we’ve built on exponentially. Darwin’s ideas have touched on a great many aspects of modern-day humans’ lives. Science, of course, has benefited tremendously. In the field of paleontology: the idea of evolution has shed light on fossils, and vice versa. Biologists have learned about what it is that makes a species thrive, and how ecosystems and the species in them become extinct because of natural selection. Human psychology only ultimately makes sense in the context of evolution: we do what we do and think how we think because of that innate drive to survive. It isn’t just science. Literature, technology, music, politics, religion—you name it—the theory of evolution is pervasive in our society, and who do we have to thank for that? Charles Darwin.

Modern science has taken Darwin’s ideas and ran with them. Darwin probably wouldn’t have pictured, 130 years after he died, his ideas being used in application to cutting-edge technology called Ecological Niche Modeling to determine the likelihood of an organism surviving in a particular ecosystem. This is exactly what Dr. Alycia Stigall, a geologist at Ohio University, works on. Dr. Stigall recently presented her work as part of Ithaca Darwin Days, a week-long celebration devoted to Darwin’s legacy organized by the Paleontological Research Institution and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The theme for this year’s Darwin Days celebration (February 11-16) is “Evolution and Invasive Species,” focusing on non-native organisms whose presence within an ecosystem causes environmental harm or harm to other species. Invasive species, as Stigall pointed out, are everywhere, even in your backyard. Take the house sparrow, for example. These little guys were native to Britain, but now there are more than 150 million in the United States. Other common invasive species include dandelions, rats, mice, pythons, and zebra mussels. “Darwin,” Stigall said, “actually had a real appreciation of invasive species. Darwin understood human agents of transport, and the speed at which some of these motions can occur.” Stigall took Darwin’s ideas and used them to analyze how invasive species affect ecosystems, but using a novel approach that allows examination over very long time periods. She used patterns from the fossil record of brachiopods to trace how invasive species were distributed during the Late Devonian, one of Earth’s five big mass extinctions. She discovered that extinction itself wasn’t incredibly high during this time, but that speciation, or the origin of new species into ecosystems, essentially came to a halt. So organisms were becoming extinct at relatively the same level as at other times, but new critters weren’t arriving. This was due, in large part, to brachiopod invasion. The species that survived the invasion events were those who could live in diverse environments and were less ecologically specialized. Invasive species themselves, in fact, are just that: generalists, not specialists. “If you can make your living in lots of different ways,” Stigall noted, “then there are many places you can make a living.”

Dr. Alycia Stigall, Ohio University

People around the world are celebrating Darwin’s birthday today, February 12. Dr. Stigall’s study pays homage to Darwin, who, more than most during his lifetime, knew the importance of diversity. Stigall’s study has relevance for species today; even for us humans. If the presence of invasive species results in depressed speciation rates, perhaps being aware of invasive species will help us preserve diversity in the future. “Not only do we need to focus on extinction,” Stigall commented, “but we need to worry a little bit about how the Earth is going to recover. It’s probably going to take a long time, because if we can’t form new species, it will take longer to rebound from the present crisis.” The birthday guy would agree.

Please visit Ithaca Darwin Days for a full schedule of events, and this column for more summary reports during the week.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.

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Published On: February 12, 2013

6 Comments

  • Roman says:

    Idea that species may change and did change in the past is great and it is challenging task to diminish Darwin’s contribution to the science as we know it now. Followers and interpreters of Darwin’s ideas are not always so great as Darwin was. Natural selection produces best fit regardless we like or not the result. Evolution does not require moral or cultural values. There is no native or invasive species, good or bad living organisms. All living species are the best as long as they are able to reproduce themselves.

  • ben says:

    “But hey, he did coin the idea of survival of the fittest.” this is incorrect. He suggested that the weak do not pass on their offspring and the better or good enough species survive. But this common misconception happens often. Because
    Herbert Spencer first used the phrase (that would later become a saying) — after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species — in his Principles of Biology of 1864.
    There is no written record by Charles Darwin with those exact words.
    Ideas are not coined either, only words. The use of coined is incorrect. And using the direct quote from somebody on Darwin’s writing, is misleading, causing people to think he said those words since this article is about what Darwin “left” for us.
    Also “Charles Darwin would be proud of us.“Of whom? of us. Us is a pronoun for more than one person. It seems the writer is addressing the author in a conversation. But conversations are dynamic and text is not. By dynamic I mean the words and ideas are directed by two or more people making it changing and turbulent like a stream “deciding” its path. (this is personification)
    The Us seems to address the reader and the author and is a poor style of writing. Here is some evidence “But hey,” , “Maybe he used his insight to discover the secret of eternal life and is currently surviving in great fitness on some tropical island in the Galapagos Archipelago. That’s pretty unlikely,”  “Simply put:”

    I i disagree that here rested easy, Since his wife was a Christain who wanted him to hold back his theory for fear he would not be in haven with her. He was a theologian by degree and would face the world’s anger on his new challenging theory that would seem to “put own” God. He was wondering if he had made a mess in the world, What if he was wrong? His theory said it was the best explanation of what he came up with explaining changes and diversity in life. His daughter died at the young age of 10 and he would be wondering if he would he her. Would he and his works be a cause or support of Atheism and therefore not be able to enter the New Jerusalem? These doubts may have accused him or challenged him worry and he left the world in a great controversy that probably will not be out done.

  • WerDasLiestIstGay says:

    Nicht interresant

  • betberry says:

    Good article. I am dealing with some of these issues as well..

  • richard frost says:

    Richard Frost

    Ten thousand years of tyranny;

    putting the soul into Darwinism

    Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has always suffered from its bloody amorality. Religious believers of most persuasions and many secularists do not see life as a struggle with no purpose but survival; and Darwinian fitness is frequently a euphemism for brute strength. But the world is not a fundamentally nasty place and people are fine – given a chance.

    In Ten thousand years of tyranny I dismember the belief, which Darwin’s theory stands upon, in universal scarcity, i.e. that there isn’t enough to go round because all species produce more young than their environment can support. Because of scarcity, Darwin claims, everyone has to compete with everyone else for the thingts they need; many die; many survive; those which also have some useful quality which gives them an advantage in the struggle for life and reproduction drive evolution; they are “fittest”. That is natural selection.

    Darwin believed in scarcity because it was self-evidently obvious to “everyone” but it is nonsense. Just look around. Resources are not and never have been scarce; rather, they are abundant; so species do not have to compete to the death to survive.

    This is all thanks to the sun, which constantly showers the earth with an almost infinite supply of energy. All life is a transformation of solar energy working on earth’s natural resources: initially minerals, gases and water. Over billions of years life evolved into a wealth of forms, many of which are alive today. As the sun never sets, so life never stops happening, evolving, changing and dying. That abundance of energy allows the evolution of a multitude of species, each adapted to a selection of the earth and its resources called an eco-system.

    The individuals of all species come into the world equipped to survive and reproduce but they are already being limited in how to do this by their species history, their anatomy (the nipple count) and reproductivity; by climate, geography, altitude etc and chance. They are further constrained by the other individuals in their eco-system, all of which are also establishing territories and behaviours to maximise their survival. Inevitably, they limit one another in configuration and behaviour. Viable webs of life are created, in – and perhaps by – the eco-system with everything getting its due bite of the apple and no more.

    Evolution is a communal process, not the individualist endeavour of Victorian capitalism and Charles Darwin; nor its modern development in social gene theory.

    The prime objective of eco-systems is, after survival, stability, which is an emergent property essential for the evolution of characteristics and behaviour: nothing can evolve if its environment is in a state of flux. Similarly, and to retain stability over time, populations are limited and stablised by their evolution, by the checks imposed on individuals by eco-systemic interactions and by natural hazards.

    The Darwinian “struggle for survival” is a distracting metaphor for all this life. All life kills or otherwise exploits others to survive: sheep eat grass; leopards eat gazelles; but such behaviours have evolved and are necessary, not vindictive. Struggle also occurs between individuals for mating; between individuals and groups for territory, and against the many hazards of life. Given nature’s abundance, life is often easy, not red in tooth and claw; vegetable survival seldom requires aggression or killing.

    Evolution results from variations arising from genetic mutation and environmental pressures, which are continual; those which are harmful don’t survive; those which might be useful are absorbed and stored. Most individuals are “good enough” to survive since they are already adapted to their environment, as are their offspring. Useful variations lurk unexpressed in the genome until environmental events make them valuable and the phenotype to which they give rise is selected.

    Natural selection operates slowly in stable environments: the great white shark has hardly changed in 100 million years; more rapidly on species cut off from their mainstream by earth movement, climate change or some other barrier; and dramatically after major disturbances like earthquakes, disease, an asteroid hits, etc. New and newly denuded environments provide opportunities for the selection of useful variations leading to dramatic speciation such as produced and later killed off the dinosaurs.

    Evolution is not a continual process: well-adapted individuals in stable eco-systems change only when they are forced to by internal or external pressures. Many species can tolerate considerable environmental disturbance without variation. The wonderful variety in birds, animals, fish, etc and their often curious behaviour developes when chance mutations are enhanced by natural and sexual selection working in the context of abundance. “Life even at its simplest level occurs, apparently, just for its own sake,” says David Attenborough, quoted in Bill Bryson’s A short history of nearly everything. Because resources are abundant, struggle in life is more often to do with food supply, climate, disease, natural hazards and chance than competition between individualsis.

    Social species living in affluence, of which we are one, are equally wary of conflict. They evolve patterns of behaviour to survive and reproduce, which also sustain their effective sub-group: population, gang, herd, pride, clan etc. Individuals defend their group; they accept group hierarchy and may support fellow members and share food. These genetic “social virtues” are essential to both individual and group survival.

    In H sapiens, the social virtues are genetically determined but are shaped by culture, which is evolved behaviour with high survival value. Each culture is based on species characteristics but arises from a group’s experiences, environment, diet, etc. H sapiens is the most cultural of species and the most variable in behaviour – in dress, habitation, language, diet, hunting, child-rearing, beliefs etc. Culture varies from group to group but always expresses social virtues which sustains the group and the individual. “The strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf” – Kipling’s law of the jungle.

    All cultures, enjoying abundant resources, are egalitarian in economic and many other respects but often hierarchical around mating and food sharing. However, though an alpha chimpanzee, for instance, may dominate a group, his power is a manifestation of evolved species behaviour and lasts only until a strronger rival takes over. Like all behaviour, hierarchy is directed to the viability of the group; it is automatically respected and needs minimal enforcement.

    H sapiens was such a a social animal until the neolithic, which ended group autonomy and affluence and saw the establishment of exploitative, unequal societies brought and held together by shamanic leaders or small cliques. People’s freedom was destroyed, along with their access to the world’s bounty – the commons.

    Before the Neolithic, people – like all social animals – had the capacity and the power to build social lives based on small groups living in affluence and equality.. They still have; and most people obey the laws they live under though they are often unjust; and are kind and considerate. But the bosses who created and control civilisation stole our power and the resources we lived on: in effect they nationalised the natural world and regulated the people they allowed back on the land as subjects, serfs or slaves. They taxed “their” people into poverty and when they could, they brain-washed them into believing they were necessary. No change there, then.

    Hunter-gatherers were limited in their exploition of nature by their natural needs and modest strength; the new bosses were unconstrained and use the power of millions in any way they fancied. That power raped the environment to provide the materials for their great works – not once but continuously. Their greed is never satisfied; like a cancer, it has no natural limits.

    The achievements of civilisation are almost without exception the product of stolen power or some form of physical or psychological slavery and continue to be so. No one gets up day after day yearning to go to work but for ten thousand years everyone outside tiny overfed elites has been trained, whipped or conned into doing just that..

    The process of the neolithic revolution inevitably brought sin into human life. The secure affluent and egalitarian conformism of the hunter-gatherer was destroyed. Slaves and captives were confined inside the walls of the first villages and cities and trained to the behaviour which served the elites: endless work on meagre diets in barbaric conditions with war as an occasional relief. Brute force, ritual, religion and fear ruled such societies; sin was inevitable.

    Religion helped, but the foundation myth of all civilised societies from the start of the neolithic until the present is not a common belief system nor a religion or ritual but the universal myth of scarcity: it was because “there isn’t enough to go round” that work, rules, law, punishments, police, courts, prisons, wealth and poverty, rulers and government are regarded as necessary and natural. The destructive effects of civilisation are the unavoidable products of power.

    Scarcity always produces power and tyranny while abundance ensures equality and stability. Darwin accepts scarcity as normal and uses it to power his theory of evolution. But he is more dangerous than that: he provides a scientific foundation for social exploitation and the operation of power. Until we see the reality of abundance, neither change nor revolution will get rid of inequality and injustice and people to administer it.

    THE BOOK IS AT http:wbat.it/tyranny

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