On the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, today, November 24, Charles Darwin’s revolutionary, evolutionary ideas are still shaping modern science as it moves into the future. In a lecture tonight, Webcast for the global audience, leading minds Terrence Deacon (anthropology), Gerald Edelman (neurobiology) and Paul Ekman (psychology) celebrate Darwin and explain how cutting-edge advances in their fields are still made by standing firmly on his scientific shoulders.
By Brian Handwerk
Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch
It was 150 years ago today that Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Even a century and a half later, the ideas described in that Earth-shaking volume are of far more than historical interest.
Darwin’s musings continue to guide cutting-edge thought in many of today’s sciences, including psychology, neurobiology, and linguistics.
NGS illustration of Charles Darwin and the variety of life that intrigued him
by Ned M. Seidler
On Origin’s anniversary The New York Academy of Sciences will gather top minds in each of those fields to toast Darwin’s achievements and discuss how their current thoughts and theories would be both familiar and fascinating to the father of evolution.
Noted psychologist Paul Ekman, whose work is the basis for the FOX television show “Lie to Me,” put together a presentation that includes anthropologist Terrence Deacon and neurobiologist Gerald Edelman.
“I thought we’d get three very different views of the influence of Darwin on the contemporary world,” said Ekman.
The 6 p.m. ET live event is sold out, but great seating is still available in front of your own computer screen via the live Webinar.
Speaking from a psychological perspective, Ekman will describe Darwin’s fascinating views on human compassion and morality–which are little known and often misunderstood.
“Most people and even most scientists, when they think of Darwin, think of his theory as having offered an explanation for a kind of ruthless selfishness and competitiveness,” he explained.
But in the The Descent of Man, Ekman said, Darwin devotes several chapters to the subject of compassion in evolution.
“Darwin believed compassion was selected for in societies,” he said. “Since we are social animals and by and large have to work together on major tasks, those societies in which compassion flourished, to use the Buddhist term, could produce more viable offspring.”
Ekman noted that this concept is in some ways a forbearer of the group selection theory, a once almost-universally dismissed concept that some scientists are considering anew.
A look at different types of compassion, Ekman explained, also poses interesting questions which are quite relevant to the 21st century.
“We increasingly live in a world where the kind of rugged individualism that ran the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries is, in the opinion of some, getting us into trouble on issues like climate change or hunger where you need a more global perspective.”
Darwin was also concerned with the concept of morality, explained Ekman, whose latest book Emotional Awareness was co-authored with the Dalai Lama.
In Darwin’s day morality was sorely tested by the practice of slavery, which he abhorred.
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals Darwin argued that the universality of human expressions (think of smiles or facial displays of disgust) show the unity of humankind.
“That didn’t prove evolution,” Ekman said. “If we had all descended from Adam and Eve we’d all have the same expressions. But Darwin was directly challenging the idea that whites had descended from a more advanced [lineage].”
The birth of modern brains and language
UC Berkeley anthropologist Terrence Deacon studies the nexus of evolutionary biology and neuroscience to learn how human cognition evolved over the ages.
With respect to Darwin’s work, he’ll discuss tonight how the evolution of the brain influenced the development of language–and vice versa–an argument he explored in The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain.}
Humankind’s complex languages and linguistic concepts evolved from simple predecessors, and the human brain concurrently evolved for the features and abilities to support such languages, Deacon asserts.
That two-million-year synergy produced a unique human lineage, evolutionarily equipped with a power of language lacking in all other species.
Neurobiologist and Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman, director of The Neurosciences Institute, will also discuss evolution in the human brain and ponder the emergence of consciousness.
He told me that Darwin’s theories on the topic were especially remarkable because so little was known in his day about the science of the human brain or discipline of genetics, which explains the actual mechanisms responsible for natural selection.
“Darwin certainly had it right that the mind and brain of humans evolved by natural selection,” he said. “That may not seem like a big deal, but if it hadn’t happened that way you wouldn’t [have the cognitive abilities to] even make that statement.”
Darwin live on the Web
Celebrating 150 years of On the Origin of Species is one of several webcast lectures in which some of the world’s top scientific minds tackled evolutionary topics.
The first lecture, Everett Mendelsohn on The World Before Darwin, is archived here.
The second lecture, Jonathan Weiner On Variation, can be heard here.
In the third lecture, Sean Carroll explained how DNA holds a living record of the specific adaptations in each species’ evolutionary journey. His November 4th lecture was entitled “Darwin, DNA, and the Making of the Fittest”.
The series was presented by a group of volunteer Darwin devotees who also hope to rally 1,000,000 users to a Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=53320310123) celebrating this year’s 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of Species.”
Darwin Facebook campaign
Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life joined a Facebook group devoted to the celebration of this year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of the “Father of Evolution,” Charles Darwin. Now the organizers of the Facebook group are hoping hundreds of thousands more will sign up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species.
Travel back in time to visit “The World Before Darwin,” courtesy of a free webcast lecture with Everett Mendelsohn, emeritus professor at Harvard University. Mendelsohn explored the milieu in which Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” 150 years ago, reveal its other evolutionary thinkers, and shed light on skeptics from the worlds of religion and science.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Columbia University professor Jonathan Weiner delved into Darwin’s evolutionary theories in the webcast lecture “On Variation.”
Weiner tracked Darwin’s footsteps to reveal how the Father of Evolution deduced that many species are descended from common ancestors, and that the variation among them evidences their evolutionary journeys of natural selection.
Explore evolution in a way Charles Darwin couldn’t imagine–by delving into the DNA evidence of each species’ unique evolutionary journey. Geneticist and author Sean B. Carroll explained how DNA holds a living record of the evolutionary adaptations that allow species to evolve and thrive in diverse environments all over the Earth.
Darwin’s First Clues (National Geographic Magazine)
Was Darwin Wrong? (National Geographic Magazine)
PHOTOS: 7 Major “Missing Links” Since Darwin (National Geographic News)
“Instant” Evolution Seen in Darwin’s Finches, Study Says (National Geographic News)
Darwin’s Secret Notebooks (National Geographic Channel)
PHOTOS: How Do Species Evolve? (National Geographic News)