Steve Jones: Darwin's brilliant ideas evolved far beyond the origin of species

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at University College London. His new book is Darwin's Island.]

Anniversaries are the last refuge of the journalist and 2009 is no exception. Happy 40th, then, to the Moon landings, felice quattro centesimo compleanno to Galileo's telescope, and glücklich vier Hundertstel Geburtstag to Kepler and his laws of planetary motion. One birthday boy gets two slices of cake, for Charles Darwin is 200 this year and his best-known book is 50 years younger. To look back on his life is to be astonished by his almost uncanny ability to predict the course of biology to the present day and beyond.

The Origin of Species is one of those tomes that everyone knows but nobody has read - but it is only one of Darwin's many works. They could, together, celebrate more than a dozen birthdays over the next several decades - and they deserve a few crumbs from the 2009 table as a reminder of how much they, too, set the agenda of modern science.

The Origin's “long argument” invented the science of biology, and every modern biologist works in its shadow. Many of its pages are devoted to individual differences, the raw material of evolution. Darwin could write only about what he could see, but now genetics tells us that every sperm and every egg made by all the billions of men and women who have walked the Earth since our species began is unique; a figure once unimaginable.

The sequencing machines that will soon read off anyone's DNA in a few hours are a direct descendant of Darwin's expert scalpel - anatomy taken to the next level. His sketch of an evolutionary “tree” has been succeeded by computer databases that make universal pedigrees of life. Farmers, whose work opens that famous volume, now go back to the wild to extract genes for flavour or yield, and breed from the best far more effectively than the Victorians could. Darwin never thought he would see the “survival of the fittest” in action; now, from the Aids virus to the lengthening legs of the cane toad as it spreads across Australia, that observation is commonplace.

Most of the great man's later work was just as ingenious. He wrote on barnacles, orchids, domestication, human evolution, the expression of emotions, carnivorous, climbing and sensitive plants, the origin of sex and on earthworms. His books are filled with discoveries that would - even if The Origin had never been written - have made him famous.

Who knows that Darwin wrote one of the first scientific publications illustrated with photographs? The pictures of an aged Frenchman “of feeble intellect”, whose face was stimulated with electric probes to give a look of horror appear in his Expression of the Emotions. Brain scans, with their claims for centres of religion, guilt or kindness, are direct descendants of that work. Darwin saw the problems involved in studying inner sentiments - how do you define a smile, where does the cheek or forehead begin and end? Perhaps, in time, his electronically entranced descendants will learn some of his caution...

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