Charles Darwin, evolution and climate change denial

5 08 2009

DarwinThis week a mate of mine was conferred her degree at the University of Adelaide and she invited me along to the graduation ceremony. Although academic graduation ceremonies can be a bit long and involve a little too much applause (in my opinion), I was fortunate enough to listen to the excellent and inspiring welcoming speech made by the University of Adelaide’s Dean of Science, Professor Bob Hill.

Professor Hill is a world-renown expert in plant evolution, systematics and ecophysiology, and he gave a wonderful outline of the importance of Darwin’s legacy for today’s burgeoning problem solvers. I am reproducing Prof. Hill’s speech here (with his permission) as a gift to readers of ConservationBytes.com. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, members of staff, friends and family of graduates, and, most importantly of all, the new graduates, I am very pleased to have been asked to speak to you today, because 2009 marks one of the great anniversaries that we will see in our lifetimes. 200 years ago, on February 12th 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was born. To add to the auspicious nature of this year, 150 years ago, John Murray published the first edition of Darwin’s most famous book, titled On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, better known to us all today as The Origin of Species.

I believe that from a modern perspective, Darwin was the most influential person who has ever lived. Darwin’s impact on how we think and work is much more profound than most people realise. He changed the entire way in which we go about living. Today, I want to talk to you briefly about how Darwin had this impact.

Darwin was a great observer and a great writer, but above all he was a great critical thinker. He became a scientist by a round about route, planning to be a doctor and a minister of religion along the way, although his passion was always natural history. He was not a great undergraduate student, but he benefited enormously from contact he had with University staff outside the formal classroom. His potential must have been obvious, because he was strongly recommended at a relatively young age, to take the position of naturalist and gentleman companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy on his famous five year voyage of the Beagle. Following this voyage, Darwin never physically left Britain again, but intellectually he roamed far and wide. Darwin was one of the great letter writers. He wrote thousands of letters to contacts all over the world, requesting specimens, data and opinions, and he worked relentlessly at analysing what he received back.

Over many years as a practising scientist I have met a lot of people with a passion for natural history, some of them trained scientists like Darwin, some of them gifted amateurs. There is a very obvious distinction between those with and without formal scientific training at a Tertiary level, but it took me a long time to work out what that distinction is. Let me digress slightly before I explain it.

In today’s terminology we talk a lot about graduate attributes. For some graduates, it is reasonably simple to define the kinds of attributes you expect them to have. I prefer engineers whose bridges don’t fall down, lawyers who keep me out of jail unnecessarily, accountants who can add up and doctors who do their best to keep me alive and healthy. However, the key attributes we expect of Science graduates are not so simple to define. You will all have one or more specialities where you have more knowledge than those who did not do the relevant courses, but if you are anything like I was when I was sitting out there waiting to graduate, you probably think you did what you had to do in order to pass your exams and you now think you have forgotten most of what you were taught. I can assure you that you haven’t, but I can also assure you that specific knowledge of a scientific subject is not the most important thing you have been taught here.

So what is that special something that separates out a professional scientist? It is the capacity for critical scientific thinking. You are now ready to work as professionals in many fields, and employers will actively seek to hire you because they know you have been trained here to apply a particular approach to problem solving. That approach is not easily obtained and has been taught to you in the most subtle way over the full breadth of what you have been exposed to during your time here. I suspect most of you don’t even know that you now have this skill, but you do. Darwin had it in the most sublime fashion.

When Darwin published the Origin of Species it was the culmination of decades of data gathering, backed up by meticulous analysis. Darwin never swayed from that rigorous approach, which strongly reflected the training he received as a student.

When you are exposed to a new problem, you will approach the solution in a similar way to Darwin. Let me consider the example of climate change. There is a remarkable parallel between the public reaction to the publication of the Origin of Species and the current public reaction to climate change. Darwin suffered a public backlash from people who were not ready to accept such a radical proposition as evolution by means of natural selection and this was reinforced by a significant number of professional scientists who were willing to speak out against him and his theory. As time went by, professional scientists were gradually won over by the weight of evidence, to the point where mainstream science no longer considers evolution as a theory but as scientific fact.

The reality of climate change and its potential impacts has not had a single champion like Darwin, but it has involved a similar slow accumulation of data and very careful analysis and critical thinking over the implications of what the data tell us. Initially, there were many scientists who spoke against the human-caused impact on climate change, but their number is diminishing. Most significantly, the critical analysis undertaken by thousands of mainstream scientists has gained broad political acceptance, despite the best efforts of special interest lobbyists. I suspect Darwin would be fascinated by the way this debate has developed.

Lobbyists who write stern words about how scientists as a whole are engaged in some conspiracy theory to alarm the general population simply do not understand or choose to ignore how scientists work. The world needs the critical and analytical thinking that scientists bring more than ever before. We live on a wonderful, resilient planet, that will, in the very long run, survive and thrive no matter what we do to it. But we are an extremely vulnerable species, and our survival in a manner we would consider as acceptable, is nowhere near as certain. That is the legacy of my generation to yours. I have faith that your generation will be wiser than mine has been, and I know that good science will lead the charge towards providing that wisdom.

Charles Darwin was the greatest scientist of all, and that is partly because he was a great observer and a great writer. But most of all, Darwin was the consummate critical thinker – he collected masses of data himself and from colleagues all over the world and he fashioned those data into the most relevant and elegant theory of all. I will conclude with a brief and well known passage from the first edition of the Origin of Species, which clearly demonstrates the power of Darwin’s writing:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I hope that the next Charles Darwin is sitting amongst you today. I know that at the very least I am standing in front of a group of people who have all the attributes necessary to be great contributors to the well-being of society and the planet. Be confident of your training and use your skills well. You have a grand tradition to uphold.

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5 responses

27 04 2011
Wade M

Quote….Lobbyists who write stern words about how scientists as a whole are engaged in some conspiracy theory to alarm the general population simply do not understand or choose to ignore how scientists work.

I do not completely agree with this statement…….in todays scientific world funding speaks a thousand words. To make the suggestion that all scientists are completely void of any bias and that those who question their motives as having only cognitive rigidity is in turn itself cognitive rigidity! I am not a scientist but I am a highly skilled professional. To imply that the social rights of many civilisations around the world have not been unduly affected by the misguided motives of some scientific groups and their desire for wealth and/or high social standing is simply an ignorance of common human behaviour.

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23 04 2011
James Sherry

I found your article when looking for a relationship between climate change denial and theories that strongly support competition as a primary human value. I am trying to make a case for a deeper social structure of cooperation and cultural transmission. I found it somewhat disheartening that Hill cites Darwin’s strong support for hierarchical taxonomy and competition rather than cooperative behavior. I realize that Darwin’s social situation predisposed him to this point of view, but today I would like us to support more collaborative efforts and non-evaluative hierarchies. Underlying the success of climate research is that slow accumulation and careful analysis by unrelated individuals all with a common purpose. Otherwise, nice article. Thanks.

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6 08 2009
Geoff Russell

The epigeneticists are coming out with plenty of stuff that strains the fabric
of evolutionary theory pretty hard. Acquired characteristics can be inherited. But
Darwin is needed to explain how this mechanism evolved. He would have loved
the challenge.

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6 08 2009
Bob

Thank you for this website! As a freshwater conservationist and scientist, it is refreshing this kind of material is out there in the ‘noise’ of the internet.

Cheers,

Bob

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6 08 2009
CJAB

Thanks for the support, Bob.

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