Genius and Simplicity

Like many great revelations, Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolution through Natural Selection is simple at its core. And yet this one simple idea has generated both praise for its scientific rigour, and scorn for its implications on the necessity, or lack thereof, of a Divine Creator. If the idea is in fact simple, is Darwin deserving of either of these?

Charles Robert Darwin was born two hundred years ago today, and published his book On the Origin of Species fifty years later. His work as a naturalist was not limited to evolution, however.  He produced a substantial body of work on a variety of topics from barnacles to worms, and it is this body of work, in its entirety, that cements Darwin as a most notable scientist and observer. And his knack for clear and meticulous recording, along with his inductive and deductive reasoning abilities, are in my mind justification for the label of “genius”.

Darwin’s ideas about evolution were not created in a vacuum. A century before Darwin’s voyage, Carl von Linné established a taxonomic system, still in use today, that is based upon relationships between organisms. Leclerc had published his ideas on biogeography, and St. Hilaire his ideas on organic change. Darwin’s Grandfather, who he never knew, had himself published ideas on common ancestry. Lamarck had proposed a mechanism for evolution, which even if wrong still promoted the idea of evolution. The face of Geology was changing as well, with the work of Hutton, Smith and Lyell. These ideas, combined with the work the economist Thomas Malthus, really set the stage for Darwin, as all of the ideas underlying Natural Selection were laid out. That is, all but one.

Darwin’s real contribution to the development of evolutionary thought was twofold – he identified the missing piece of the puzzle, and then he assembled it. What Darwin keenly observed both on his voyage and at home was the extent of diversity, not just between species, but within species. Darwin’s simple idea was that this variation, far from being deviation from an ideal, was both intrinsic and necessary. Despite its simplicity, this change in how species are viewed was truly outside the box, and was a paradigm shift in the true sense, one with resounding repercussions. Because of this final piece, Darwin was able to assemble the puzzle and see how simple and elegant it was.

Simplicity of the mechanism, however, does not mean simplicity in the process or the result. Like the Mandelbrot set, a very simple set of rules can produce complex results that show both order and unpredictability. Darwin was not the inventor of the idea of evolution, nor was he the only one who could have conceived of it – in fact as we know his contemporary Alfred Wallace compiled essentially the same idea. But simplicity and inevitability of the idea do not diminish its importance. They do not diminish its importance to modern Biology, and they certainly don’t diminish the importance of the man who made it his life’s work to understand it.

Happy birthday Darwin.

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