Our modern world sans Charles Darwin!

A. H. Jaffor Ullah

Published on  Darwin Day (February 12, 2006)


In about three-year time, the world will celebrate the bicentennial birthday of Charles Robert Darwin who hardly needs any introduction from anyone of us. I first heard Darwin’s name when I was merely in the high school in the late 1950s. Our science teacher told us that humankind had evolved from monkey. On hearing this, there was a roll of laughter in the class. I did not laugh for it was the most bizarre thing that I heard so far in my formative years. When I returned home, I asked my elder brother who I thought knew many science tidbits. But no, he also never heard that humankind had came out of apes. Books were not plentiful in those days, nor were television or other media. Nonetheless, the fact that we evolved from monkey stuck into my head like crazy glue. In the sixties, when I was taking courses in botany, zoology, cytology, genetics, breeding, etc., I was reintroduced to Darwin and his “crazy” idea of evolution. This time I did not have to look for my elder brother or any other sage to verify whether Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution had any meat in it.

In my college days in Mymensingh (Bangladesh), I had access to a great library at the university that was good enough for me to quench my thirst for new information. While most of my classmates would attend the Jumma prayer on Sabbath Day (Friday), my time was being spent at the dorm reading books on modern biology. I became worldlier while a majority of my classmates was more interested in afterworld. After knowing that humankind had evolved from apes, I lost interest in the genesis (the chapter of Bible that deals in the birth of heaven, hell, and world including Adam and Eve) and eschatology (the branch of theology that is concerned with the end of this world – Keyamaat). I did not realize that I became a liberated person at that early age. Thanks to Charles Darwin! His seminal findings had set me free from the bondage of religion. My life would have been a total waste without the knowledge engendered by this great sage of nineteenth century.

While musing I thought what this modern world would be sans the findings of Charles Darwin. My logical side of the brain tells me that if Darwin were not born in 1809 someone else who would have been trained naturalist would have discovered that biological species evolved in time from simple to complex organism. It is not true that Darwin figured everything about evolution by himself. By reading a well-researched article in the Net, I learned recently that Charles went to Edinburgh, Scotland, to attend college to become a medical doctor. However, his mind was somewhere else. The last thing he wanted to be a physician like his father and his elder brother. He was a keen observer of animals. There in Edinburgh he befriended some wise men of science (zoologists) with whom he used to converse and exchange ideas. Be mindful that evolution was already an established field by then. The Lamarckian view of evolution was hotly debated in the campus especially in the department of zoology. Darwin used to take a stroll in the campus with other naturalist and take part in colloquium. These intellectual discourses had no doubt nourished young Darwin’s mind.

If Charles Darwin had become a trained physician as mandated by his family, the scientific theory of evolution would have arrived at a later date. As we all know, science thrives on the findings of others. It is a cumulative thing and not a revolutionary idea. It is a small wonder that when one writes a scientific article the first thing one does is review the past articles written on the same or similar topic by others. In the discussion chapter, one comments on results obtained by others. Science is the most logical subject after math; therefore, discussing others’ results is a fair thing to do. In light of this view, it is logical that Charles Darwin was familiar with the findings of other naturalists who delved into evolution.

Endowed with a keen mind, Charles Darwin, the amateur naturalist, in 1831 at the age of 22 year set sail for Galápagos Islands (a group of volcanic islands lying along the equator in the Pacific Ocean west of the mainland of Ecuador; the islands are famous for their rare species of fauna, including the giant tortoises for which they are named) on a ship named HMS Beagle. The amateur naturalist stayed in the ship for 5 years. However, towards the end of the voyage in 1836 the Beagle spent only 5 weeks in the coastline of Galápagos Islands where Darwin began to formulate his ideas about evolution only after watching the diversity of finches on this remote island. Based on the variation of beaks in finches Darwin hypothesized that from a common ancestor descendants spread out, adapted to different conditions, and eventually gave birth to new species. This seminal idea became the base of his famous theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin was a thoughtful person who knew the upshot of his revolutionary findings, but deep inside him, he was tormented by their implications for organized religion (read Christianity) and peoples’ belief in God. Probably for this reason alone, Charles Darwin never did publish his magnum opus ‘The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection’ until 1859. He must have grappled with the idea that his findings might shake up the pillar of monotheistic religions of the world for 28 years since he made the discovery in the remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Ever since humanity knew Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution, he was recognized by the scientific world as one of the few intellectuals whose finding would revolutionize and shape up our world. Thus, his name is placed in the same league as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

Consider for a moment the possibility that Charles Darwin was not born in 1809. Under this backdrop, what our world would be like right now? Darwin is considered by most biologists of the world to be the person who single-handedly revolutionized the modern field of life sciences. The discipline of evolution had touched every gamut of botany, zoology, microbiology, genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, genomics, proteomics, and a whole slue of other allied field. Therefore, without his landmark discovery these disciplines would not be in the same state as they are now. As I write this short essay to commemorate the contribution of this lone genius, I am simply awed by his intellect. He was a brave man too! In late nineteenth century, modernity had arrived in Europe but Christianity was still a major force at the time. To go against the powerful institution one had to be immensely brave. And brave was he?

We learn from reputable biography of Charles Darwin that he first formulated his famous theory of evolution when he was voyaging in HMS Beagle in 1836; however, he withholds publishing the theory until 1859. Some savants had opined that Darwin was willing to delay the publication of his famous theory a little longer had it not for a younger scientist by the name Alfred Russel Wallace who was coming up with a very similar theory. Darwin knew that his theory would knockdown the pillar of Christianity. He did not have to say that he doubted very much the tenets of Christianity; it was axiomatic from the conclusion he drew out of the data he gathered on variations in beak in finches.

This write-up won’t be a complete one without mentioning Darwin’s modern-day detractors. In the West especially in America, we have some obscurants who are calling Darwin’s findings collectively “Darwinism.” According to these peddlers of prevarication, the ardent followers of Darwin are called “Darwinists.” Some preachers and neocons in America are trying their level best to portray the scientific theory of evolution as propounded by Darwin as merely a cultist’s view. As per Harvard biologist Prof. E.O Wilson, these charlatans have developed a rhetorical device to make evolution seem like a kind of faith (such as ‘Maoism’). They are the ones who are trying to include “Intelligent Design” hoax into biology textbooks in high school to cast a doubt in Darwin’s theory of scientific evolution.

Among a group of intellectuals from Muslim world who have embraced modernity with an open arm, they find no problem with Darwin’s view about evolution but they fail to see inanity in the Book of Genesis. They think the story of how Satan had enticed Adam and Eve to have sex (eat the forbidden apple) and in the process fell from heaven is all-true. This confused bunch of modernist Muslims are writing articles glorifying the work of Darwin but at the same time, they are trumpeting the virtues of being a religionist. There is no dearth of confused learned scholars like them amongst us. Readers may find them here in this forum. With a stroke of luck, they may find one or two articles where the writers would welcome the celebration of Darwin’s lifelong work while glorifying such religion as Islam as being a true religion of peace and full of divinity.

I am happy to admit that I am an ardent supporter of Darwin. To make my ends meet I do research in the field of modern molecular biology. Our lab generates mutations in a gene to increase its Darwinian fitness by making the gene product more stable. Evolution does this change very slowly but in the laboratory, scientists are speeding up the mutation rate a million-fold. In my real life, I celebrate Darwin’s monumental findings everyday. And in my musing I think what a waste our life would have been if the world never did produce such genius as Charles Darwin. The world’s 6.25 billion folks would still be under the yoke of religion. Therefore, think again about the contribution made by this genius. I for one am glad to know that Darwin was born to emancipate humanity from the clutch of obscurantism or a dark force that is almost a cult like phenomenon. Are you ready to embrace Darwin’s view and be at peace knowing there is no afterlife? I trust that I have one life to lead; therefore, I am serving humanity by seeking new knowledge. Knowledge is power and it begets wealth and makes a nation prosperous. Am I sounding like an arch capitalist? Then, I beg your pardon.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, an enzyme researcher and columnist, pens this essay from the campus town of Cornell in Ithaca, NY.