Scitech | Darwin, DNA and, “many more details”

While evolution has formed the core foundation of biology, 150 years since Darwin’s theory of evolution, was published, it remains as controversial as ever. According to a 2007 poll released by Angus Reid Global Monitor, only 59 per cent of Canadians believe the theory of evolution, while 22 per cent believe species were created in their present form.

On February 12, millions across the world celebrated Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. Darwin’s journey on the HMS Beagle and his explorations have formed what Dr. Andrew Hendry, professor of biology at McGill University, calls “the foundations of all modern biology.”

In his 1859 landmark work, On The Origin of Species, Darwin described evolutionary development and the transformation of species through the process of natural selection. Darwin’s unorthodox ideas proved controversial at the time of their publication.

As Dr. Ehab Abouheif, professor in the Department of Biology at McGill, describes, “When you undergo a paradigm shift, it is always turbulent, always controversial, and always difficult.”

At the time, Darwin was not aware of the mechanisms of heredity and genetics – processes which would later be reconciled with Darwinian evolution in a unified theory.

“All of the advances of the last 150 years have pretty much just fleshed out his basic fundamental idea. We know many more details than he did, but the basics are the same,” explains Hendry.

Those details include a good knowledge of the genes that encode for development, and the field of epigenetics – the study of heritable changes in gene function that are not changes in DNA sequence.

“Where before, many people had in essence discarded the idea that acquired characters can be inherited, the new challenge is to understand how they fit into Darwin’s scheme,” says Abouheif.

Hendry also points out that in addition to genetics, another major shift in evolutionary biology has been understanding evolutionary time. “Darwin thought evolution took place slowly, but we now know it can often take place on short time scales. Evolution is occurring around us right now,” Hendry says.

“Fundamentally, Darwin put us in our proper place,” Hendry says “We are a part and product of the natural world, not something that has some dominion over it. This makes us realize that we have, to take better care of what we have and that we need to find a way to maintain a more harmonious integration with the natural world.”

Abouheif agrees. “When a theory has really significant, deep and meaningful impact, its influence only continues to grow,” he says.