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Egenis · News

Put 'Darwinism' aside



Let's celebrate Darwin, then let him go, says John Dupré


Darwin is everywhere, including in the pages of April's EGN newsletter. In this editorial for the newsletter Egenis director John Dupré suggests that when the party's over, we should let the man go.

"The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the happy coincidence of this being also the sesquicentenary of the publication of On the Origin of Species has precipitated an outpouring of books, TV and radio programmes, and acres of news and magazine print examining Darwin’s life and thought. There are hundreds of events across the country this year to celebrate the anniversaries, including some organised by the ESRC Genomics Network itself. I know that I’m not the only member of the Network who is having a hard time trading off requests to speak about Darwin and Darwinism with worries about a growing carbon footprint.

"It is certainly appropriate to celebrate the achievements of one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, but maybe it is also appropriate to undertake some more sober reflection. The celebrations have been marred, to some extent, by argument between the proponents of evolutionary theory and those who prefer to see the hand of God in the development of life on Earth.

"It would be wonderful if we could somehow get rid of the word 'Darwinism' altogether. Just as God, notoriously, tends to be invoked by both sides in most wars, so also Darwin tends to appear on both sides of the major debates in evolutionary biology. But it is surely the case that if we let the debate with creationists turn into one about whether Darwin or Jesus Christ is the true author of Holy Writ, we lose even if we win. We must acknowledge and indeed celebrate the fact that science is fallible, and that is what allows it to progress. As my colleague and collaborator Professor Ford Doolittle has said, “It really shouldn't matter what Darwin said and we shouldn't be having to defend him any more than engineers building satellites have to defend Newton. Natural selection and descent with modification, Darwin’s essential contributions, are but part of evolutionary biology’s current explanatory tool kit.”

"One of my own major current interests is in the remarkable recent developments in microbiology. Darwin, though he did take a considerable interest in microbes, had no access to the insights into this dominant area of life that have been provided by genomic technologies. Of particular relevance to evolutionary theory is the phenomenon of lateral gene transfer, the shuffling of genes (of which, of course Darwin also know nothing) between often very distantly related organisms, which happens all the time in the microbial world. And viruses, a still less fully understood part of the living world, are able to move genes between more complex organisms such as ourselves. These phenomena underlie the Leverhulme-funded project at Egenis, Questioning the Tree of Life, one area in which Darwinian or neo-Darwinian orthodoxy is currently, if very controversially, being seriously interrogated.

"Darwin was a genius, but one limited by the state of knowledge of his time. Knowledge increases, science progresses and the world moves on. We are rightly celebrating the man’s life, but let us then put ‘Darwinism’ behind us, move on from the sterile argument about whether he was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and explore instead the much more exciting avenues of biological knowledge that have opened up to us since the Victorian era."

The April edition of the ESRC Genomics Network Newsletter is in press.