Charles Darwin, a man for our time

12 February 2009 | News story

by Jeffrey McNeely, IUCN Chief Scientist

This is the 150th anniversary of the publication of arguably the most important book ever published on biology, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, as well as his 200th birthday (had he survived). It is therefore timely to reflect on the impact of Darwin’s work on the conservation movement in general and on IUCN in particular.

IUCN’s founding father was Julian Huxley, then Secretary General of UNESCO. Julian Huxley was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading British professional naturalist who was the strongest champion and advocate of Darwin’s ideas on evolution. Without prestigious supporters like Huxley (sometimes called “Darwin’s bulldog”), Darwin could well have been dismissed as a bit of a lunatic, especially because his ideas were so threatening to parts of the religious establishment.

But the idea of evolution through natural selection has proven to be remarkably fertile, explaining the diversity that we see in the natural world. Many of Darwin’s ideas were developed through keen observation beginning in his youth, but reached a critical mass during his five-year (1831-1835) around-the-world voyage on the Beagle, where he served as the ship’s naturalist assigned especially to investigate geology. The weeks he spent on the Galapagos gave him an insight into how a single founder species arriving on a remote collection of islands could lead to several species, each adapted to a somewhat different diet or geographical setting.

Charles Darwin provided the foundation concepts of modern biology, but the concept of evolution through natural selection has not yet been absorbed by the general public. Even in a relatively well-educated country such as the USA, less than half the population believes in the theory of evolution. And perhaps we are still far from accepting the fact that Darwin showed that we human beings are part of the natural world rather than having inherited dominion over all things.

While Darwin believed that evolution was a long-term and rather slow process, more recent scientists, including Julian Huxley, have recognised some major turning points in the development of life, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs enabling mammals to greatly expand or the impact of ice ages and rapid climate change.

Darwin’s ideas were reinterpreted as “survival of the fittest” and applied to human societies, much to his discomfort. But if we look at the state of the world today, we can hardly avoid recognizing that our species, or at least modern industrialized society is at one of those critical turning points in the relationship between people and the rest of nature, or indeed between different groups of people. Contrary to other species, it looks like we have brought ourselves – wilfully or through greed or ignorance – to this turning point. One lesson from Darwin is that evolution seems to be primarily a one-way street, in that it seems exceedingly difficult to revert to an earlier form once a species has evolved into something else.

Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from Charles Darwin today is that successfully adapting to changing conditions is the secret to evolutionary success.

Charles Darwin may have upset many people when he provided incontrovertible evidence of our affinity to our closest cousins, the great apes, and our more distant cousins, the monkeys; and indeed our ultimate relationship to all of the living creatures on the planet. But given the success of these species in adapting to continually changing conditions, perhaps we should replace our feelings of superiority with a bit more humility and simply make sure that we are not bringing about changes so fast and extreme that they will not be able to keep on adapting.

So what are some lessons from Charles Darwin for IUCN and the environmental movement?

  • Be thorough, but don’t let caution keep your good ideas from emerging. Darwin already formulated his main ideas about natural selection in 1838, but it took a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace 20 years later to actually force him to go public with his theory.
  • When you have a revolutionary insight, back it up with solid science, get the idea generally accepted, and then get really radical. He barely mentioned humans in Origins, but addressed human evolution thoroughly over a decade, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and later in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).
  • Don’t get stuck in an intellectual rut. Darwin also was the leading expert of his time on lowly creatures such as earthworms and barnacles, and magnificent systems such as coral reefs and the relations between orchids and their pollinators. Today, he would certainly be a leader at meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and would keep the focus on science.
  • Secure your funding. His years on the Beagle (his only foreign trip) were funded by his wealthy family (his mother and wife were both Wedgewoods, of crockery fame), who subsequently enabled him to live the life of a gentleman naturalist who could devote his full time to unravelling the mysteries of nature. Who knows what IUCN and its members could accomplish if they didn’t need to devote so much time to fundraising?
  • Remember that the world is constantly changing, and adapting to change is the driving force behind evolutionary success. For IUCN, 2009 will be a year for some remarkably creative adaptation to changing conditions. Who knows what form our new institution will take as it adapts to the evolutionary forces of the coming years?
  • Seek innovation from a wide variety of sources and disciplines. Many of Darwin’s ideas came from geology and the evidence of extinction fossils revealed, and his major insight on the struggle for existence came from the economist, Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population. Multiple disciplines can enrich our thinking about adapting to the new social, environmental, and economic changes of the 21st century.
  • And finally, keep a sense of humour. A high point of every year is the announcement of the Darwin Awards, given -- usually posthumously -- to individuals who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it through acts of remarkable stupidity (see