In honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday, staff reporter Jessica Letchford asked renowned Yale professors Richard Prum and Laurie Santos to reflect on Darwin’s impact on their personal research and to discuss the future trajectory of evolutionary biology given revisions to Darwinian theories over the past two centuries. They both had something unique to say about his influence on their chosen fields of study, but shared a common admiration for the man who introduced the theory of natural selection to the world.
Richard Prum, William Robertson Coe professor of ornithology and curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody Museum:
Within biology, there are people who would like to describe evolutionary biology as Darwinism, and although I have unbelievable respect for the man, I feel that is a grave error. It’s like imagining all of physics as Newtonism.
It reinforces the idea that science is somehow the law — that what we think now is based on a precedent of an earlier decision that was unquestionably true. But the science of evolutionary biology has grown tremendously. Darwin had no lucid understanding of genetics or inheritance at all. He described the problem with great perception, described all sorts of features, but he had no idea how it could possibly work. While Darwin has had an incredible depth of impact on evolutionary biology, we have moved unbelievably far away from where he was empirically and mechanically. All his theories have since been revised. After all, his work was a massive work written by a Victorian gentleman, sitting in a little chair with a lapboard, with a library around him and a lapdog at his feet. Sure he had a garden and correspondents from around the world, but there were very few experiments — definitely no controlled experiments — no account of genetics or molecular biology. Now we have it worked out his written account in great mathematical detail. What’s amazing is that we are gaining new tools to understand lots of these fundamentally important evolutionary questions. One such question is the complete function of genomes and the detailed understanding of how they’re created. We’re also seeing the unification of molecular and evolutionary biology. We had some periods where they were quite separate entities. But now no one will be able to do molecular biology without evolutionary biology.
Laurie Santos, associate professor of psychology:
Charles Darwin is my academic hero. Darwin figured out the answer to one of the most conspicuous, most remarkable puzzles in the natural world. Namely, why do species look so good? That is, why do organisms fit so well in their respective environments? Before Darwin came along, most reasonable people had to assume that nature’s wonders were designed by an intentional creator. But Darwin changed this. His idea of natural selection provided a simple, elegant explanation that could account for all of the amazing things we see in nature. Amazingly, he figured out the answer without any knowledge of the genetic world, without any knowledge of the mechanisms that give rise to traits or their inheritance. It’s actually a real pity that Darwin didn’t live to see the structure of a DNA molecule. He would have been riveted.
But this is not the real reason Darwin’s my academic hero. Darwin is my academic hero because he recognized the implications of what he had figured out, but he told people anyway. Darwin knew that his idea would challenge people’s cherished views about the origin of species. He knew that his idea was heretical. And he knew that many people — including those personally close to him — might be hurt by the implications of what he had discovered. His private notebooks reveal the tremendous emotional pain that this conflict caused him. Yet he never halted his quest for evidence and answers. Even now, I am humbled by Darwin’s bravery in this respect. I can only hope that I would possess the same level of scientific fortitude in the face of observations that challenged my own deeply held personal beliefs.
Unfortunately, I think the biggest challenge facing evolutionary biology in the next 200 years won’t be a scientific one, but an ideological one. Two centuries on, Darwin is still fighting his detractors. Despite unambiguous scientific evidence that Darwin was right, more than half of Americans don’t believe in evolution. There are some classrooms in our country, indeed, as I was sad to recently learn, even some classrooms here in Connecticut, that aren’t allowed to mention his very name. For this reason, the real challenge of the next 200 years will be for scientists to become proselytizers of the elegance of Darwin’s wonderful insights, to demonstrate that there is not danger but, as Darwin himself famously put it, “grandeur” in his view of life.