100 years on…on the origin of species

www.nhm.ac.uk (National History Museum, UK)
source: http://www.nhm.ac.uk (National History Museum, UK)

You might correct my ignorance and point out that we have already celebrated 150th anniversary of the  publication of the famous book by Charles Darwin.  Please be patient and read on…

In a timeless monograph (1962, Elsevier) titled ‘The Geological Aspects of the Origin of Life on Earth’, late Prof M G Rutten (1911-1970, University of Utrecht, the Netherlands) eloquently defines the concept of uniformitarianism (the idea that present is the key to the past and vice versa) and its implications to our understanding of the origin of life.  I think some of his description is so good that it comes very close to Charles Darwin’s famous last paragraph from ‘The Origin of Species” (1859).  Ofcourse, Rutten had a lot more information than Darwin.  We should also remember that Rutten wrote this monograph just less than 10 years into the discovery of DNA double helix (1953) and many other discoveries including that of the genetic code were still hot in the oven.  I still don’t understand evolution.  However, Rutten’s monograph published a century after Darwin’s book does help to reduce the confusion, and more importantly like Darwin, his writing style captures a reader’s imagination.

Prof Rutten writes and I quote,

page 2…

Given enough time, earth movements of 1 mm a year, or even 1 mm a century, can create mountains or oceans.  Given enough time, a new fauna may develop gradually out of an older one, whilst the older forms die out almost imperceptibly.  Given enough time, series of repeated small earthquakes will build mountains or sink parts of continents to oceanic depth…in our short-lived human egocentric mind, we think of the earth as stable and strong.  Nothing is less true…in fact, they (it) seldom, attain(s) this equilibrium…”

And he continues to repeat certain punch phrases, which is a hallmark of a writer who is not bound to the dull words in science.

“…the origin of life will have covered an enormous time-span, if measured against human standards.  During this period development will have been slow, almost beyond imagination.  In its slownessthe origin of life may have been infinitely varied.  For all we know, there may have been different parallel series of development.  Possibly only a small number of these, or perhaps even only one single line of development, led to our present life.  In its slowness, moreover, the origin of life will have been subject to the same physical and chemical laws as life is today…”

Long lasting changes in the things around us, particularly in the things that are natural and non-living, changes that would be true for the entire globe, take a long time to occur.  More often than not, such changes are not witnessed over a human lifetime.  However, one does observe several minor incidents of local importance and if those minor incidents are frequent and continuous then they may prove significant over longer time scales.  Minor local incidents (very rarely) do accumulate and might cause a major global upheaval with a long-term impact.   Similarly, changes in scientific thinking do take significant human time and even they have to accumulate to make sense to a group of serious researchers.  The trickling down effect of a new idea, so to say, requires a scientific proof that is hitherto unheard of.

I was trying to see how people celebrated Darwin’s book in its centennial year (1959) and was looking for relevant publications in a big library.  There might have been some personal tributes to the man.  I did get some here and there.  However, nothing in 1959 could be compared to the 150th year’s celebration of ‘the origin of species’ (+Darwin’s 200th birthday), which was celebrated globally throughout the year 2009 and has continued into 2010.  I don’t know whether scientists and people who are inspired by scientific literature need to go over board endlessly celebrating Einstein and Darwin.  Many say that what we are doing to highlight them is not enough.  It could be a symptom of the times we live in.  I am not convinced.

Rutten’s monograph, which I stumbled across is a low-key event in the history of science.  He wrote it as a genuine attempt to define some questions he had.  He did not write it to join any scientific bandwagon.  That should be sufficient.

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