The origin of life has for centuries – and that includes these present post-modern times – been a subject of debate. The arguments of believers and those with a scientific conviction are both strong. If Charles Darwin – whose attachment to the Bible loosened progressively through his youth and middle age – could argue that life as we know it has evolved, there is a counter argument that no evidence exists to support the veracity of his position.
However, with life increasingly based on science – and all that it has led people to on Earth and beyond – it is hard to be dismissive of Darwin's conclusions about the concept of life as it has come to be. We cannot ignore the diligence with which he studied various forms of life he encountered on his long voyage on the HMS Beagle along the South American coast. Here was a man whose early aim in life was to study theology and who pursued Divinity at Cambridge. His early attachment to the Bible was deep; he readily subscribed to the belief that man was a direct result of divine creation. It was little wonder that the young Darwin was party to the religiosity which defined his generation as the 19th century provided a strong base for religion.
Yet there was to be a change, of a revolutionary sort, in Darwin, of the kind that would inevitably cause controversy. Of course, the forms of life he studied on his voyages – over a period of twenty years – and his interaction with nature, alongside his interpretations of the evolution of life on Earth, were not immediately presented to the public. This was fundamentally because of the shocking and angry debate it would arouse.
Darwin waited, one can imagine rather restlessly, for the results of his experiments to make their way into the public domain. Not until Alfred Russel Wallace revealed his findings – ones that approximated Darwin's – did Darwin choose to emerge, finally, with his conclusions on the nature of life in its various forms. Predictably, a storm was unleashed, for it is never an easy job to challenge men's opinions where the question is one of creation or indeed of God – involved in the entire process of the beginning of life as manifested through the emergence of the cosmic system and the universe. Note that Darwin was careful not to be dismissive of creation. At that early stage, he simply proffered the thought that man was symbolic of a gradual process of mutation and transformation.
That was – and is – the theme underlying "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection," which appeared in 1859. Darwin's premise, given his experiments with respect to other living species, was that man had descended – through a long process of permutations and combinations – from apes, and had come to be where he was at that point of time. If we may expand on Darwin's evolution scheme, the idea cannot be wished away. Studies of ancestry, through the prism of passing generations, have increasingly upheld the theory of evolution. Children are more sharply drawn, from a physical point of view, than their parents – who in their times were an improvement on their parents. Again, while evolution has engineered the movement of life among humans as well as other living organisms, there is the reality of those creatures that failed the test of evolution and died off. Giant reptiles of old are not around anymore. If ever there were dragons at any point in history, they did not survive or refine themselves into newer, more adaptive, forms.
In our times, David Attenborough keeps us glued to the television screen with his research into the various fields of life as they occur in nature. This begs the question: Is not the evolutionary nature of life what leads to the proliferation of life that Attenborough means to demonstrate? Go back to the late Carl Sagan, whose deliberations on the cosmos were deep explanations of the manifold ways in which the universe had taken shape. The Big Bang, and everything associated with it, is a story of evolution. Add to that the fact that two Voyager spacecraft have covered millions of miles in their journey through space since they were launched from Earth in 1977. Each of these spacecraft carries a message from mankind in the expectation that at some point of time in some of the farthest reaches of the universe, in some distant solar system, they will come upon a race or a civilization inhabiting a planet and perhaps conducting life in ways we are not aware of or cannot conceive of.
Attenborough's research and Sagan's deliberations, together with the saga of the Voyager spacecraft, constitute the nature of the evolution of human intelligence. It then becomes reasonably clear as to the nature of Darwin's revelations which sought to explain the origin of species – all species. Darwin was no atheist, as his earlier forays into religious studies demonstrate. But there came a point in the evolution of his thoughts when he found the Bible could not be a valid representation of history. In his opinion, religion was rooted in unquestioning faith. Additionally, his links with religion loosened when his mind rebelled against the concept that all non-believers would suffer in the fires of Hell. Meanwhile, a rational explanation of phenomena as they have occurred and continue to occur rests on the degree of scientific experiments and explanations that can be marshaled in relation to life as we experience it on a daily basis.
Darwin's thoughts on evolution were refined through an endless stream of experimentation he pursued on the Galapagos Islands – about five hundred miles away from the South American coast. They were purposeful studies of life as he saw it, proof of which is to be found in the considerable quantity of species he shipped back home on the HMS Beagle. Observe that no fewer than 1,529 species – dipped in spirits – and more than 3,000 species – in dried form – were sent home to England as part of the giant project he worked on in the course of his journeys. Naturalist that he was, Darwin was keen about probing the beginnings of life in the living creatures he encountered during his studies.
The naturalist placed his ideas before those who would listen in a simple form. Evolution, in his view, was what sprang from roots in the soil. The tree was the beginning for the tree embodied a universal scheme of things that naturally widened-out in various directions and dimensions. Darwin saw the tree as beginning to take form with the trunk and then developing limbs – in the form of branches and twigs – with the leaves forming a canopy that was but another explanation for the multiplicity of life. Take the idea a little further and what you have is a series of life cycles which keep emerging from the roots and which are a constant improvement on what has already existed.
But, yes, before Darwin there was the French botanist Augustin Augier and after him the American microbiologist Carl R. Woese with their own tree-related explanations – the latter diverging from Darwin a good deal. However, in substantive form, the tree has served as the foundational principle of evolution. Darwin could not have put it better than in the following statement:
"The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth."
An early backer of Darwin's findings was Charles Lyell. Not that Augier agreed with Darwin. Not that Woese did not offer an opposing opinion. However, the essential premise remained virtually unaltered. In these post-modern times, perspectives differ and are but qualitative improvements to Darwin's theory of evolution.
David Quammen puts it rather differently in his work, "The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life." He finds that new discoveries and newer research demonstrate radical differences in the stories of how life evolved on Earth. Quammen takes issue with Darwin's idea that nature does not progress in leaps but in an incremental fashion. Quammen argues that nature does indeed move ahead in leaps through gene transfers, with DNA suddenly appearing in individuals and populations.
The publication of "The Origin of Species" raised quite a storm. Initially, Darwin was pleased with the reviews of his work, such as those by Thomas Henry Huxley, William Benjamin Carpenter and Joseph Dalton Hooker. But soon, as Darwin noted, "the stones began to fly." Richard Owen did not turn out to be very flattering in his assessment of the book. Much a similar attitude was demonstrated by Adam Sedgwick and Asa Gray. Even Huxley raised a few questions subsequently. Men like George Henry Thwaites and Andrew Murray thought Darwin needed more substantive explanations in support of his theory. In the course of a lecture at Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce was particularly vehement in his denunciation of Darwin's work.
All said and done, however, Charles Darwin's findings on the evolutionary nature of life have proved enduring – indeed seminal – through their irrefutability over the century and a half in which they have been studied, researched and debated. Here is Darwin, in all his firmness rooted in experience:
"We must . . . acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities . . . still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
(Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 and died on 19 April 1882)