On this day 160 years ago, Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species, a work that sparks controversy to this day. His theory was that species evolve through a process of natural selection in which the fittest survive to pass on successful traits to subsequent generations.
The “Theory of Evolution” evolved, if you will, from observations Darwin made in the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere decades earlier, during travels chronicled in The Voyage of the Beagle. He delayed publishing his views until 1859 in large part because he feared the controversy they would cause and ultimately did so when he learned that others had begun developing similar theories.
The recognition that things do not remain static has a long history of sparking controversy. Galileo’s publication that the earth is not the center of the universe, but revolves around the sun certainly upset authorities, despite it being accepted by scientists long before. Hegel posited that ideas evolve to new and higher forms through syntheses addressed by antitheses. One could even argue that Socrates’ dialogues followed a similar pattern. His penchant for using them to spark controversy certainly hastened his demise.
Darwin’s theory, that the “Creation” is not fixed, fit well within the scientific thought developing at the time, and in fact, his publication was prompted by the work of others that had begun to reach similar conclusions. What made it both groundbreaking and controversial was that life was not static and that we were merely evolved apes, rather than creatures made by God’s hands on the sixth day. It was deemed a theory since the genetic process by which traits are passed on was not itself discovered until the 20th Century and deserves a better title today.
In its way, Darwin’s theory was as dramatic as Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe itself is not static, but is actually expanding. We are only yet beginning to consider the implications of his finding. I suppose if you put together the notion that life evolves and that the universe itself is infinite and evolving, one might theorize that somewhere out there a higher form of life may well exist. I sometimes hope so, since we could use some help preserving and improving ourselves.