Survival of Darwin’s fittest idea

The last 200 years of human history has been shaped by three theories—Albert Einstein’s relativity,Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Charles Darwin’s theory.....

Written by Anindita Sanyal | Published:March 3, 2009 1:15 am

The last 200 years of human history has been shaped by three theories—Albert Einstein’s relativity,Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams and Charles Darwin’s theory on the origin of species. While Freud’s theories have since been superseded and modern physics has moved light years away from Einstein’s elegant system,Darwin’s ideas still appear relevant.

As 2009 arrives with a significant double anniversary—200 years of Darwin’s birth and 150 years of the publication of his The Origin of Species—stocktaking has begun across the globe.

Across the seas and into the Galapagos,young enthusiasts retrace his steps. Some peek into the kitchen of his Kent home,recreating the recipes of his wife Emma Wedgwood. Others pour over his papers and letters,reinterpreting his relations with man and god. Yet others look at mankind’s journey since Darwin and the evidence is overwhelming: Darwinian thoughts have influenced genetic research,physics,economics,psephology,psychology,social behaviour and art. His paradigm is used to explain everything—love,politics,finance and even the cosmos.

In Scientific American,Seed,Smithsonian,Discover Magazine,New Scientist or Cosmos,from what Darwin influenced (everything) to what he did not (the church),experts have gone on to speculate on evolution and mankind’s future.

When in July 1837,he drew a spindly sketch of a tree in his notebook and called it the “Tree of life”,Darwin had little idea that one day it would provide the dynamics to interpret a thousand-and-one fields.

“Darwinian thinking is a little bit like gravity,” reports Discover Magazine,quoting Helen Fisher,anthropologist from Rutgers University and the chief scientific adviser to an online dating service, “It has infused everything.”

Fisher herself has used evolutionary psychology,inspired by Darwin ‘s insights,to divide people into four broad personality types,which is what she uses for matchmaking on her website. The parameters of a desirable partner also follow the evolutionary scheme of things. When women look for successful men,and men look for hourglass figures,they are both looking for the best possible start for their prospective offspring,socially and biologically.

Physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo,Ontario,has utilised Darwinian concepts to shape a theory of the universe that he calls “cosmological natural selection.” It posits the existence of a vast number of unseen universes,each generated by the collapse of a black hole.

Using Darwin to explain economics has been around since 1898,reports Seed,when US economist Thorstein Veblen wrote “Is economics not an evolutionary science?” More recently,in 1982,economists Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter wrote,“An evolutionary theory of economic change”. And now,as the world grapples with a devastating meltdown,some economists say it is time to focus less on foreseeing the economic future and more on explaining how economy works. And the answer may again be Darwin.

Economist Herbert Gintis of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and his colleagues note that the latest elaborations of Darwinian ideas can explain cooperation and competition in the economic arena. Accordingly,they are modifying the rational-choice model. Cooperative behaviour,they maintain,can ensure the survival of a group. Hence springs altruism,which makes a society so strong,that selfish individuals cannot compete. That bad governments invariably get voted out is another example of humans looking after group interest.

There are researchers who say that evolution is still happening in the body as well. Over the last 10,000 years,the human skeleton has developed in ways that are the results of our environment,reports Discover Magazine,quoting anthropologist John Hawkes of University of Wisconsin at Madison. Cultural innovations help humans survive and even the basic habit of eating cooked food has resulted in smaller teeth and living in safe habitats has led to diminishing physical stature.

So,experts agree that Darwinism has proved itself a winning idea. From the lukewarm initial response of 1859,it has stood the test of 150 years. Today,it can still wrap itself around new ideas and theories—one of the best examples of “natural selection”.

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