It has been over a century and a half since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859). His work revolutionized scientific thinking but also came in conflict with the 19th century English scientific establishment closely tied to the Church of England. Darwin’s theory of evolution defied the idea that science was part of natural theology and species were unvarying parts of a designed hierarchy. His explanation of the theory of natural selection challenged the creationist view that species are created by divine edict. Today, Darwin is universally known as the father of the theory of evolution. An interesting fact that cannot be ignored when dwelling on the subject is the work of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was a British naturalist who played a vital role in developing the theory of natural selection. He independently proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. It was almost like a single mind working in two places concurrently - Darwin on the coasts of South America and Wallace on the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia and Indonesia). Wallace produced scientific journals with Darwin in 1858, which propelled the publication of The Origin of Species the following year.
The study of evolution has advanced considerably since Darwin’s observations as a naturalist on board the HMS Beagle. In 1866, Gregor Mendel’s studies on heredity and genetics brought in additional insight to the modern evolutionary theory and founded the laws of inheritance. Mendel was an Austrian Monk whose experiments on pea plants made the amazing discovery. Several major ideas about evolution converged in the population genetics study of the 20th century and formed the modern synthesis, often referred to as the Neo-Darwinian theory. Evolutionary biology as an academic discipline emerged during the period of the modern synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s. The modern discipline of evolutionary biology includes several sub disciplines of biology such as behavioral evolution, evolutionary developmental biology, evolutionary ecology, evolutionary genetics, evolutionary morphology, evolutionary systematics and molecular evolution.
The theory of evolution not only explains how species evolved but is also a treatise on ecological interrelatedness and mutual interdependence between different life forms. The web of life exhibits this connectedness and the dynamic nature of life on earth. Evolution in the simplest sense is a natural process that brings about change. How it happens is what evolutionary biology seeks to explain, but when it happens is a difficult question for evolution is happening every moment. It is happening at a very miniscule scale to be noticeable. The changing environment and the need to adapt triggers the natural process of evolution.
Humans through their superior intellect and brain power has altered the natural environment. The Anthropocene age has a dominant influence on climate and the environment. Global warming, species extinction, habitat loss, change in chemical composition of the atmosphere are some of the clear instances attributed to human activity. Genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and space research technology are examples of the insurmountable depth of human intelligence. How we use them for the benefit of mankind and the environment depends on how we perceive our planet. It will depend on how wisely we apply the sophisticated knowledge and skills developed over many millennia. Planet earth and its inhabitants cannot live in isolation. The natural world is so interconnected that every species has a role in the earth’s ecosystem, and every individual action can affect the person next door. A sneeze from one will cause a chill to the other. Nothing was so revealing than the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
Evolution is a natural process and it is nature’s adaptive response to the environmental change. The dynamics of nature is so intricately designed that humans have yet to understand the formulae that drive nature’s operations. Our knowledge of evolution is nothing more than a tip of the iceberg. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are still struggling to fully understand the jigsaw puzzle of the natural world. On the other hand, human activities continue to disrupt the chain of nature’s original setup. The state of the global environment would have been far better if the changing face of the planet was not influenced by human activity. If the atmosphere was not injected with overdose of greenhouse gases and industrial pollutants, if oceans were not choked with plastic waste, and if wildlife habitats were not lost, our world would have been a better place for all inhabitants.
The pace of environmental change driven by human activity is so rapid that nature’s coping mechanism could lag far behind. But, it is not too late. Our planet’s global ecology has never been so critical than it is today. But we have also never been better equipped to understand what is happening and what needs to be done. The collective wisdom of human beings should outshine our myopic thinking and dissuade vaulting ambitions from stepping over reason, greed from surpassing need and indifference from overtaking compassion. Evolution is a continuous process, and in the realm of impermanence change is the only permanent entity. Reflecting on the teachings of the Buddha, one of the four Dharma Seals of Buddhism resonates this phenomena: all compounded things are impermanent.
Darwin, C. 1998. The Origin of Species. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. Cumberland House, Hertfordshire, UK.