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Pinnacles of 19th Century Science

February 12, 2009
Utica, N.Y.

Richard Feynman famously presented his students with his unique (and let's admit it, hyperbolical) view of history when he said

Others might acknowledge Maxwell's work but argue that the most important scientific event in the 19th was instead the codification of the laws of thermodynamics. Many people contributed to thermodynamics, including designers of steam engines, Sadi Carnot, James Joule, and Rudolf Clausius, but it was William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) who first stated the first two laws of thermodynamics in the early 1850s, and who popularized the use of the word "energy" in its modern sense.

Thermodynamics and Maxwell's equations help us understand how the universe works, but 19th-century science also brought about an increased understanding of the mechanism of living things, primarily through the discovery of the process of biological evolution by means of natural selection and sexual selection as described by Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday we celebrate today.

To quote the famous title of Theodosius Dobzhansky's 1973 essay, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution." Yet Darwin was clearly aware from the beginning of his researches that evolution had profound implications not just for biology in general, but for the origins of human beings. Evolution answered millennia-old questions like "Where did we come from?" with the revelation of a marvelous process involving the accumulation of small incremental changes tested for viability in the real world over millions of years, accepting what works, abandoning what's harmful.

We are part of this process, so evolution also tells us much about ourselves. Every other living thing is one of our distant cousins. Instead of having "dominion" over all the earth, we are yet another creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. We came about through a blind, mechanistic, natural process, yet one that led to the development of minds capable of self reflection and wonderment, including the inquisitive, experimental, brilliant mind of Charles Darwin.

Evolution is a process more beautiful than any work of art, more awe-inspiring than any miracle, more meaningful than any theology.


The maxim "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" can be a scientific wet blanket. It's too easy to say that the explanation for everything is survival advantage. A theory that explains too much is as bad as a theory that explains too little.

I once heard someone trying to dream up a survival advantage to explain why people in some areas have dry ear wax rather than the more common sticky variety. They said maybe the mutation for dry ear wax preserves moisture and could improve survival in a dry climate! That kind of thinking is a mark of someone who has only one tool in their toolbox.

John, Thu, 12 Feb 2009 16:08:02 -0500 (EST)

> I once heard someone trying to dream up a survival advantage...

You seem to have rather mangled the story so you might want to read about the ear-wax gene in the New York Times:

Of course, article author Nicholas Wade says very clearly "Since it seems unlikely that having wet or dry earwax could have made much difference to an individual's fitness, the earwax gene may have some other, more important function," perhaps related to sweating, which would seem to have a role in survival in different parts of the world. — Charles

Thanks for the link. I heard the story from a podcast, so I may have started with a second-hand account. I had not read the NYT article. Still, the whole discussion of advantages to different types of earwax seems a little silly. Sometimes a mutation is just a mutation, just as Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

John, Thu, 12 Feb 2009 18:07:05 -0500 (EST)


I think you have taken some unjustified liberties when transforming the phrase "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution", into "the explanation for everything is survival advantage".

Think about the phrase a little more and perhaps read the essay:

— cbp, Thu, 12 Feb 2009 18:45:07 -0500 (EST)

Charles, you should check out Robert Wright's book, "The Moral Animal." It's a good introduction to evolutionary biology and has some good content on Darwin's career, his drive to publishing Origin of Species, and some of the social and political challenges he faced along the way.

Scott Mitchell, Thu, 12 Feb 2009 19:00:07 -0500 (EST)

Thanks! I read The Moral Animal when it was first published in 1994. — Charles

If you say so, Charles, it must be true.

— Thu, 12 Feb 2009 20:42:06 -0500 (EST)

Although I can't disagree with your worldview more, I commend you for demonstrating an important point: Christian faith and Evolution are mutually exclusive

— Brian, Mon, 16 Feb 2009 11:33:57 -0500 (EST)

"Every other living thing is one of our distant cousins."

Yes and no, it depends on epistemological purpose and context. In a sense, we are all "cousins"; take it further and everyone and everything is just star dust. But in another, objective sense, man is *the* rational animal, which is why he does and should have dominion over the earth.

— Brad Williams, Mon, 16 Feb 2009 15:04:26 -0500 (EST)

A bit off topic...each primate life begins with zero knowledge and a reliance on a parent or member of it's previous generation to teach the basic skills of co-operative and/or competitive survival...for only a small fraction of the human population does this teaching extend beyond basics to include an understanding of past scientific knowledge and its application and is a luxury which truly conveys a Darwinian advantage to the "class" of humans that are chosen to "record/retain/archive/convey/advance" this knowledge. For example, we are just now beginning to see a glimpse of what might be possible if/when this knowledge is applied to the extension of human lifespans. Most likely this advantage will not be shared/extended to ALL of mankind due to the facts of Darwinian/Human is fascinating to wonder what type of human being (and society) might exist now and in ten thousand years as each generation will need to consciously choose to preserve, promote and share the chain of knowledge that will accumulate over the next ten thousand years... or will the fragile chain break and return us to fearful cave dwellers. There is nothing in our DNA "yet" that assures our race will persevere and continue to learn from our past.

— Dave Lacerte, Tue, 17 Feb 2009 07:55:18 -0500 (EST)

Darwin's work on the evolution is the best theory and model we have to explain Living Things. This is not to say that a century from now we may have a better theory. Instead of working on a better theory and better understanding how Life works, all you can read is the nonsensical discussion between two Teams of Thought, as if question of Life is some kind of a soccer game and a shouting match.

There is so much empirical evidence that evolution works on small scale and on a large scale. The evolution is not only limited to seemingly random changes in the DNA. It also works in the social aspect of all living creatures. Humans probably got the upper hand because of their social abilities - with knowledge and learning, you can teach your offspring to hunt better, eat better and live better and THAT ultimately has an impact on who you are in the short term and long term. We do agree, I hope, that we are what we eat and what we know :)

Creationism, on the other hand, does not offer much of an explanation for anything. It is very akin the Cloud Theory now very popular in the IT world. Everything is a friggin cloud, everything came from the cloud and everything goes back into the cloud.

As human beings, we evolve during our lifetime and pass on our genes + social habits (phenotype, anyone?) to our children. That is the evolution in action.

Evolution on a large scale may be intractable in terms of a proof but we can "integrate" all the delta-Life results into a larger picture.

— SamG, Wed, 25 Feb 2009 13:28:12 -0500 (EST)

@Dave Lacerte

Google and the Internet in general have made knowledge available to anyone who decides to learn something. Learning is a matter of personal choice first, environment and finances. Financial picture is often just an excuse for avoiding to learn something new. You don't have to go to Harvard to learn something that will benefit you and your children. If knowledge is readily available to anyone who bother to look for it, your point about "chosen class" does not make much sense.

People who complain about "lack of education" are least likely to roll up their sleeves and lead by example.

Laziness, chips, TV, infomercials. Need I say more? Turn off the TV and you will find time and resources to learn something.

— SamG, Wed, 25 Feb 2009 13:44:04 -0500 (EST)

>>There is nothing in our DNA "yet" that assures our race will persevere and continue to learn from our past.

Except maybe (just maybe) the very fact that we are here today? Is mere existence a proof enough for the underlying efficiency of the "chemistry"?

— Chemistry, Wed, 25 Feb 2009 15:32:51 -0500 (EST)

Organized religion has also evolved (gasp!) over the past 2000+ years.

From a force that produced the Dark Ages (resistance to learning and love of sharp weapons and fire, at its core), it became a perfect PR machine, with financial appetite greater than that of hedge funds :), which now even manages to apologize for just about anything except the Inquisition (which did not happen! trust me on this one!).

A true mystery to me is how such a force/institution can "hold court" about morals and the Divine without evolving into something completely different and, let's hope, new version - better and improved.

— Evolution of Religion, Wed, 25 Feb 2009 15:54:30 -0500 (EST)

I found your article to be great interest of mine. I am a research student and your blog helped me in completing my assignments. It clearly describes Thermodynamics and Maxwell's equations which help us to understand how the universe works, but 19th-century science also brought about an increased understanding of the mechanism of living things. Your blog was amazing.

Amy Cooper, Sat, 14 Mar 2009 06:01:49 -0400 (EDT)

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