Thursday 12 February 2009

Darwin Day

This post is to celebrate Charles Darwin who was born two hundred years ago today and whose book On The Origin Of Species changed the way we understand nature and our place in it. I can’t remember when I first heard of Darwin or natural selection and the theory of evolution. They seem to have been part of my life forever. Probably though it was when I was ten or eleven as that is when I started to study natural history, reading books on rocks, plants and animals, watching birds, dabbling in ponds and collecting shells, rocks, insects and anything else I found. My bedroom window shelf was covered with old glass sweet jars containing pond life – tadpoles, great diving beetle larvae, water scorpions, whirligig beetles, ramshorn snails and more while my cupboards were full of cardboard boxes containing neatly labelled sea shells and insects and on my desk were notebooks detailing what I saw and collected in neat lists. On television I watched programmes with David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, Hans and Lotte Hass and other TV naturalists. From my first readings I grasped that all life is related and has evolved from common ancestors. I also understood that human beings were animals too and just as much part of nature as frogs or woodlice. Being interested in history as well as nature I’ve always liked knowing where ideas come from and how they develop so I read the stories of how our knowledge of the natural world came about and learnt of the importance of Darwin and evolution.

Since those days I have continued my interest in nature, though my boyhood desires to be a scientist died long ago, crushed by the boring science lessons of secondary school, dull chemistry and physics that seemed to bear no relation to the real world and taught by teachers whose only interest appeared to be exam results. For years I didn’t even realise that there was any connection between school science lessons and the natural history I continued to study. Over the years I’ve read many books on evolution and Darwin and those who followed him and amassed the overwhelming evidence, still growing daily, that proves he was correct but I never attempted to read Darwin’s major work itself, the closest being Steve Jones’s modern (and excellent) reworking Almost Like A Whale. I read the eloquent and literary essays of Stephen Jay Gould, the books of Richard Dawkins (The Ancestor’s Tale is a wonderful conceit that works well) and Richard Fortey (whose Life: An Unauthorised Biography is superb) and articles in New Scientist but not On The Origin Of Species. This year I intend to put that right.

The idea that we are part of nature, part of the world and not some superior being planted on it by an outside force has always seemed to me both obvious and wonderful. Perhaps it is why I have never felt lonely when spending weeks by myself in wild country. Instead I feel I am at home, where I belong. Darwin put it beautifully in the famous and stirring last lines of The Origin of Species:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved”.


  1. Bold statements Chris and a subject with much opinion. Many Scientist believe in the existence of God. Why? Are they narrow minded? After all religion causes war, or are the strong over coming the week and natural selection is doing its work. Why does natural selection even allow for the evolution of a belief in God? I believe and have a faith. On science I marvel at it. I have met many scientists who have a faith. Many become convinced despite the claimed overwhelming evidence. C. S Lewis with all his knowledge came to faith…..odd considering the evidence. The vastness of the universe is truly amazing. But to say I am an animal and my behaviour is subject to the laws of nature is debatable I love and cry. I get angry and sad. I am accountable for my actions I see humanity more different than maybe you do. Back on science I think Einstein summed it up with “"The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." CS Lewis said "Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning. . ." Meaning is debatable. I marvel at the hand of God in the wilderness. You at natural selection. Each view takes a step of belief, as many a scientist will point to science which disputes your view as well as mine. Take care.

  2. Martin, I intentionally didn't mention god or belief in god in my post but as you've brought it up I have to say that I can see no evidence for the existence of any god or gods.

    The continuation of the Einstein quote is interesting. He makes it clear that the idea of a personal god cannot be justified and says "In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests". Einstein is proposing Deism, the idea that there is some force behind the universe but not one that has any concern for individuals or that interferes in the workings of nature.

    Evolution is established as a fact with natural selection as the means. The evidence is overwhelming. It's as much a scientific fact as the earth going round the sun or gravity. It's not a question of belief, it's a question of accepting facts. So it's not a bold statement to say evolution is a fact. And it's certainly not bold to say human beings are animals. I think forgetting we are animals is one of the reasons the world is in such a mess. Without the natural world we cannot survive.

  3. A thoughtful reply Chris. Yes you did not mention God. I did, and did so not in offence to your post but as a response that the claimed fact of evolution as taught by Darwin is often used to deny the existence of God, or gods of any description. Today I live in an ever changing world. The society I live in here in the UK is a multi-cultural, multi-faith world. Many enlightened minds still don’t hold that there is overwhelming evidence that we came from nothing, or there is no God or gods. Now for evolution to have started Chris you needed life. The big bang. I always struggled with life starting from nothing. One of the laws of science is life has to come from life. We are the right distance from the sun for life to exist and oxygen is plentiful and photosynthesis happens. The Moon is the correct distance from us and gives us tides and all the things that make life possible. All facts.

    Yes I see species adapting but still I don’t see the fossil evidence of one species changing into another species. The society we live in has changed, but ask how. Could the moral laws we have and values we hold be influenced by faith. I would say so. Many of the reforms and changes over the history of this country have been shaped by men of faith. On the subject of facts, what fact would you point to that explains conscience or the need for belief in evolution – how is the existence of these related to survival of the fittest or animalistic in any context? I could spend hours discussing this Chris but it not my intent to. My comment was a response to your well-written post. Summing up, you might find there still are those who will debate your held view on this. I am not alone with my view as you aren’t with yours. How many a hill walker have you known who has a faith despite the ‘overwhelming evidence’? I do recall Hamish Brown talking about his faith in his Mountain Walk book. A quick internet search will turn up many scientists talking about their faith. They have no doubt about their reasons to believe and still hold to science. The facts of evolution are debatable within science itself. Genome research would challenge some of the facts you might hold to. So to say they are facts is a bit bold in my view. Yes Einstein did not hold to the personal God or gods view but he did say "I want to know how God created this world; I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details." In a 1997 survey 4 out of ten scientists polled believed in a God. Why? Evolution as taught by Darwin with all its facts is often used to dispute the existence of God, or gods. Yet there are many who doubt the overwhelming facts. I will leave you with that thought. Long comment I know and an enjoyable posting to discus. Enjoy the book.

  4. Martin, I do think that evolutionary biology, which has progressed enormously since Darwin's day, does mean that the existence of any god or gods that have any effect on nature is not possible. Deism is another matter. I see no need for a deistic god but maybe there is one (or many).

    As to life arising from a chemical soup or similar (not from nothing - that would be impossible) the chances of this happening are extremely unlikely. But given the vastness of the universe it would still occur on many planets. The chances of winning the lottery are highly improbable but someone still wins, without need of supernatural intervention. Life like that on earth could only occur in the right conditions, which is why we are here. That such conditions exist is not miraculous. Different conditions would produce different life forms or no life at all. Life has also altered the earth to be more suitable. Oxygen did not exist in the quantities needed today when life began. Early plants produced oxygen, to put it simply.

    The fossil record contains masses of evidence of species evolving into different species. There are many virtually continuous sets of gradually changing fossils. And new ones are being discovered all the time. Just a few years ago the fossil of a fish with features of a land animal was discovered (see and Neil Shubin's book "Your Inner Fish").

    And there is masses of evidence for evolution apart from fossils - biogeography, genetics, molecular biology. Genome research in particular is providing much further evidence for evolution.

    Moral values come from the fact that we are social animals and need to co-operate. The cultural way such values are promulgated may come in part from religion in certain societies at certain times but this has never been universal. Also, different religions may have different moral codes. In fact the often authoritarian, intolerant and oppressive moral codes of many religions is one of the big problems with religion. Conscience has evolved because it is in our interest. We need to look after each other.

    A minority of scientists may believe in god. Why is that? Also, surveys show that 95% of scientists accept evolution.

    Many books have been written on these subjects of course and many scientists, following Darwin, have devoted their lives to evolutionary biology, so we can barely touch the subject here. Still, it is interesting to discuss this.

  5. On .."it is interesting to discuss this."..very true Chris and I would love to do so. But it would take more time than I have. I will keep an eye out to see if anyone else comments on this. Take care now.

  6. Your quote of Darwin was very very moving .But alas I feel the only thing that seems to grab modern day backpackers is the constant search for yet another lighter, better, more endorsed piece of backpacking tat-evolution of a sought I suppose (from backpacker to consumer packer!!!). very sad.

  7. anti-smug, I'm not sure that it's fair to pigeon hole modern day hikers in that way.

    Although I am very much researching lighter backpacking equipment myself, it is so I enjoy the "great outdoors" even more - with a more comfortable load on my back. My first and foremost reason for going out backpacking is the fantastic feeling you get being alone with mother nature without the constant hum of the rat race.

  8. Interesting comments. I'm convinced by Darwinism, as it's a theory based on science and provable facts.
    As for the whole God/no God debate, it has no relevence to my life, as i don't know/care, so don't waste any time on something that can't be proved. If others choose to believe in something that is 'illogical', then as long as their beliefs harm no others, then fine.
    The more time i spend outdoors, especially solo trekking, the more i believe i'm part of the earth, and 'mother nature' places as much value on my existence, as it does on a mountain hare or a golden eagle. I like the feeling that i am but one insignificant part of this 'one planet'. We are all part of the same food chain that will consume us all in the end.
    I rather like the fact that i am equal to, but not any 'better', than a golden eagle. Wish i could fly though. :)

    Mike fae Dundee

  9. Glad you also enjoy the great outdoors as well as "very well researching backpacking equipment". well done-good for you.
    My point was some people can't see past the equipment, boots v shoes, tent v tarp, this pack-that pack. Who cares-not me. Read Hillaby, read Brown (even read Bryson)they all love the outdoors without having to shove equipment down your throat. Not convinced-look at the blog responces when Chris tries to express the wonder of his surroundings. What tent is that, what snow shoe is that, etc. etc.

  10. Anti smug Chris makes a living reviewing gear. So he will get asked questions on kit. I have often commented on the photos and scenes he has shared with us. A question to you. Have you a name and who are you?. It is easy to comment and have a opinion hiding on the web.

  11. anti-smug, the last comment you made makes a personal attack on one of the other people posting. I'm not prepared to have this on my site so I've rejected it. Robust disagreement and discussion is fine. Personal attacks are not.

  12. I can prove that evolution is true, I wear an Arc'teryx jacket on occasions. I am a living fossil ;-)

    Anyway David Attenborough said it is fact. What I disliked about the bible is how it tells us we have dominion over the world, or words to that effect, sorry but look at what a mess we have and are making of the world.

    I do sometimes say God help me, or oh God (usually when I stub my toe!), but nothing has happened yet, I am with you Chris. I see no evidence to a greater being. I can see myself in a chimp, poor creature!

    Did anyone know that a hyena is more cloesly related to a cat than a dog?


    PS - brave subject, Chris, shows you have guts! Nearly said b...s, but that a bit rude for an open discussion.
    Take care and good luck. We doing ok here.

  13. Good article, Chris. In this day and age, I feel more at ease as being part of nature rather than having dominion over it.

    When I was younger, evolution didn't prevent the existence of God. As times move on, so arguments and attitudes change. I can marvel at the beauty of a rock formation without wondering if geological forces made it or if it was individually crafted by God.

    I wonder if people are considered "bold" and "brave" when they review a book on geology? It is a strange time that we live in.

  14. Thanks for your comments folks. I must admit I didn't think my post was bold or brave, given that I was only saying what I've thought for decades. And because I wanted to concentrate on Darwin and evolution rather than religion I didn't even mention god.

    I don't think evolution does mean there is necessarily no god, it just makes a Biblical type creator impossible. A deist god is still possible but seems unnecessary.

    I often marvel at a rock formation, or a butterfly or tree or vista from a hill top without thinking about their origins. But I do find that knowing how things came to be deepens my appreciation. Take the North-West Highlands for example. Knowing about the Moine Thrust really changed how I viewed this spectacular area.

  15. I don't see how evolution makes a "Biblical type creator" impossible. The first chapter of Genesis makes theological statements - it is a very strange reading of it to see it as a "scientific" account, though admittedly it is much closer than most creation myths to a scientific account.

    The point someone made about "dominion" is also contentious. I think most biblical scholars would not accept that as a good translation of the Hebrew, and certainly in the context of the whole Bible "stewardship" is a much more appropriate concept. To use the Bible as an excuse to rape and pillage the natural world is not justifiable.