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Darwin’s science still inspires wonder

“Darwin was so intent on studying nature that all else parted ways.”

Dr. Gordon McOuat, head of the Situating Science knowledge Cluster pauses for effect.

“In his autobiography, he documents one occasion when he was out collecting beetles, but he had forgotten his jars. When he had caught one beetle in his left hand and one in his right, there was nothing to do with a third but put it in his mouth. So he did. And it sprayed acid.”

McOuat tells the story with fondness, leaning back in his chair at the Dalhousie University Club as he awaits the start of the Friday afternoon portion of “The Idea of Evolution.”

The conference organised by Situating Science and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) brought some of the world’s top evolution scholars to Halifax for four days of workshops and public lectures last week.

John Beatty was one of the presenters at the workshop. Although the conference was organized to mark 200 years since Darwin’s birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Beatty says the content went beyond the expected.

“Most conferences this year have just been celebratory,” he says. “It’s nice to be at one that’s critical.”

McOuat says that the workshop portion of the conference, which was closed to the general public, was an exploration of the lessons that natural selection might still hold for us.

Evolutionary theorists tried to hash out the tree of life, understand the meaning of population, and grasp our psychological states – all in the context of Darwin’s great insight.

“The greatest idea ever?” McOuat grimaces slightly at my suggestion. “I’m not sure about that. Mathematics was a pretty good one. Copernicus was nifty, too.”

“Darwin’s was the most revolutionary, perhaps,” he finally concedes.

The often-rehearsed explanation of Darwin’s impact on our self-understanding is deepened when it is articulated by these experts. Darwin pushes against the notion of essence and shatters the concept that there is a purpose for human beings or for life more generally.

“Darwin grabs us by the scruff of the neck and throws us back into nature,” says McOuat. “He historicizes us and makes us radically contingent.”

One thing seemed abundantly clear at the conference: we are far from done with Darwin’s thought, and far from working out all of the possibilities that grow out of natural selection.

In the three public lectures by Ian Hacking of Toronto, Janet Brown of Harvard and Marc Feldman of Stanford, this theme repeated again and again.

“The conference is showing what an achievement the theory is and how much it still has to give,” Brown said to the crowd or almost 300 that packed Ondaatje Hall.

As Brown argued, part of the conference’s task was to “reintroduce Darwin as a historical figure and a good man.”

According to both Brown and McOuat, Darwin was far from amoral.

“Unlike in an on-high, theological conception, Darwin forces us to see that our morals are built at sea as we evolve,” McOuat says.

But he is careful to emphasize that this is not nihilism.

Instead, Darwin celebrates nature, challenging us to get closer to it.

“His book is beautiful and intricate. He writes like he thinks living things are,” explains McOuat, after reading the last few sentences of Origin aloud to me. Darwin was meticulous in his studies of variation, he says.

He continues to show us a “grandeur to life … more beautiful than any theological thundering.”

“Anybody who says that science removes wonder doesn’t get out very much,” McOuat declares with relish.

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