November 24, 2005


Many of the views which have been advanced are highly speculative, and some no doubt will prove erroneous.

Charles Darwin, 1874,

The above quote was from Darwin's book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex and one of his views was erroneous in a very important way. Darwin believed that acquired characteristics were inherited, which we now know is not true. Darwin(1809-1882) believed it because there was no other possible explanation available at the time. The key to the correct explanation lay with a contemporary of his, a Moravian monk named Gregor Mendel(1822-1884). Mendel's work was ignored until about 1900, when three other scientists came to the same conclusion and rediscovered Mendel's brilliant papers. Mendel's work was the beginning of what is now known as genetics. It showed that inheritance occurred in what are now called genes that reside in the nucleus of cells. At the same time, Hugo DeVries discovered mutation, the alteration of genes. During the 1900s genetics progressed to where it is today, where the structure of the gene is known and genes can be manipulated. We now know that acquired characteristics are not inherited, as Darwin believed.

Darwin was a first rate scientist, and he knew that his speculations might be wrong. He stated that "False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path toward error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."

It is an event that I can never forget. I was taking an oral examination given by 5 members of the faculty of the zoology department of the University of California at Berkeley. That exam would decide whether I could proceed toward the doctorate. Professor Oliver Pearson asked me if I knew how atolls were formed. I went to the blackboard and diagramed an oceanic volcano. I described how the coral reef built up around the base and when the volcano slowly sank and the coral reef grew. That rim of coral formed an island with a lake in the center. He then asked me if I knew who had discovered this. I replied that I didn't have the faintest idea. He then said "It was an obscure biologist by the name of Charles Darwin." I just about sank through the floor. Despite this, I passed.

Darwin was a prolific biologist. Among other things, he calculated how much earthworms turn the soil, did much on the structure of barnacles and did some original work in geology. He was also a prolific writer. His book The Voyage of the Beagle has been described as an adventure story. His most famous work is The Origin of Species in which he postulated that evolution occurs in nature in much the same way as animal breeders select the varieties that they want, with nature doing the selecting.

Scientists have barely scratched the surface of the immense universe that might be understood. Among the interesting questions, that no one can possibly know the answers to, are: When did life begin? Did it begin just once or many times? Is new life beginning now? There have been some very tiny clues, but no answers. Those questions don't seem to disturb clergymen and philosophers, whose specialty is providing answers to unanswerable questions. The phrase that is often used by most first rate scientists is "I don't know." Running a close second is "Nobody knows." I don't recall ever having heard those two phrases from a clergyman, philosopher or a politician. Of course, that may be due to the fact that I rarely listen to clergymen, philosophers or politicians.

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