Origin of Species at 150: A Celebratory Conference
November 21, 2009
Opening remarks to the conference celebrating the 150th birthday of the Origin of Species
Originally, the organizers thought that I should be given an hour to lecture you on the importance of Darwin and The Origin of Species, however …
Welcome to UofT
For those new to our university, I hope you get a chance to look around. Without too much self-promotion, I can safely say it is quite a distinguished place:
- Largest university in Canada
- 70,000 students on three campuses
- Over 600 undergraduate programs, over 200 graduate and professional programs (many of these with either direct or indirect relation to evolutionary studies)
- Strong disciplines, internationally respected
Similar to many other universities during the second half of the 19th century, the University of Toronto struggled to reconcile Darwin’s ideas of the development of life on Earth with the received teaching of the day:
- Declined to appoint Thomas Huxley – a brilliant Darwinian thinker – to the Chair in Natural History for the brother of an Ontario politician…
- At the time, the University of Toronto may have been seen as a “godless university,” (as contemporaries described it) but here, just as elsewhere, almost everyone believed in God, and “Darwin’s dangerous idea” seemed as threatening to some of our faculty members as it did to those in England or Europe …
- Daniel Wilson, the first president of our federated university, was initially a reluctant, but then a keen supporter of Darwin, and wrote his major work, Prehistoric Man: Research into the Origin of Civilization in the Old and the New World in 1862; the second and third editions of which saw a biblical chronology removed in exchange for Darwinian ideas of the descent of man…
Today, some 150 years later, I stand before you – the 15th President of the University of Toronto – addressing a conference of Darwin scholars.
It’s wonderful how Darwin’s ideas are getting more currency and discussion over the past 10-15 years than they have since (probably) the 1920s.
Much of the discussion in the popular press seems to focus on Darwin’s mistakes. Indeed, some groups have recently published so-called “corrective” versions of the Origin of Species for distribution to high schools, pointing out all those times that Darwin was in error. But of course this is ridiculous…
The important thing is not how many details Darwin got wrong – absent any notion of DNA or genetics – but, rather, the foundational ideas that he got right.
And universities play an important role: defending the scientific process, and also providing invaluable open space for debate.
Origin of Species is still important
While the Origin of Species gets the most currency, Darwin would still have been a renowned biologist and naturalist for his work on the formation of coral atolls and the biology of plants …
Darwin’s Major works:
- Voyage of the Beagle, 1838
- The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, 1842
- On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859
- The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, 1868
- The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871
- The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872
- The Power of Movement in Plants, 1880
- The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, 1881
For those of us who’ve worked in the field of applied bioscience, it’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of evolution …
Just as Alfred Russel Wallace – who, in the late 19th century, gave a series of lectures here – lost the credit for the discovery of evolution to Darwin, so did Lamarckian evolution become discredited by the triumph of Darwinian thought
Others who have since tried to “enhance” Darwinism (i.e. Gould, punctuated equilibrium), now find themselves with viable, predictable platforms as we begin to understand epigenetics.
In the 150 years since the publication of the Origin, biological evolution as set out by Darwin has had enormous impact, with ripples not only in biology, but also into the worlds of philosophy, theology, social science, and pop culture.
Sticking just to the “hard” sciences, today Darwin’s work is continually strengthened by ongoing research in:
Paleobiology – the fossil record today is much richer than in Darwin’s day and dating techniques such as carbon-14 and potassium argon have provided a reliable dating and ordering of the events of the evolutionary past.
Paleoanthropology – the work of the last 70 years has produced a wealth of hominid remains going back to the emergence of hominids.
Population Genetics – beginning with Gregor Mendel in 1865 and maturing in the period 1908-1930, the development of population genetics yielded an notion of heredity that Darwin’s theory requires but which he simply had to assume.
Cytology – the discovery in the early twentieth-century of chromosomes and their behaviour, which conformed to Mendel’s theory, provided empirical evidence for the emerging theory of population genetics.
Biogeography – building on Darwin’s work on the geographic distribution of species, it became clear that geographic isolation was an important factor in evolutionary dynamics; with the acceptance of plate tectonics in the 1950s and 1960s, the evolutionary explanation of the unique flora and fauna of Australia and South America became unassailable.
Bacteriology and virology – the reality and power of natural selection in rapidly transforming bacterial and viral pathogens made natural selection an undeniably pervasive dynamic of evolutionary change
Molecular Genetics – the discovery of the structure of DNA and, equally important, the structure and function of the proteins which it encodes enhanced further the dynamics of evolutionary change. In addition, molecular genetic analysis has revealed relationships between organisms such as the close relationship between humans and chimpanzees.
And the list goes on with evidence from immunology, haematology and the like building daily. (Not to mention the mirror of Darwinism in free market economics…)
Importance of Today’s Conference
Which brings me to today’s conference …
The University of Toronto has exceptional strength in the range of evolution-related disciplines; and, of course, as is clear from even a cursory examination of the accomplishments of those participating in this conference, U of T is not alone…
Overall, this is an exciting conference, with a great range of topics, which together continue to speak to the wide-angle impact of the Origin of Species, and its continued relevance.
So, finally, I would like to thank and congratulate the conference’s organizers. It is a great privilege for the University of Toronto to be hosting this event, and it has been a great privilege for me to deliver these opening remarks.
All the very best for a successful conference.
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