Much has been said and written about the work of Charles Darwin, much of it sadly based on misunderstanding of the scientific theory he expounded. The truth is that what Darwin spelled out in his ‘Origin of Species’ has stood the test of time and really is our best explanation of the development of life on earth. The description of evolution stands as one of the truly great advances in human understanding, and stands alongside Einstein’s relativity and the works of the quantum physicists for its resilience and relevance.
Nothing in Darwin’s work is a comment on human society, or the relative worth of individuals in that society. The work describes the life and survival of species, and does not ascribe merit or blame for that life or to the survival or extinction of any species.
The process of evolution is simple, elegant and compelling. Every living species, including our own, strives to meet two basic demands of life. These are the seeking of nourishment, and the reproduction of itself. As the one thinking species, we live far more complex lives than simply that of pursuing a meal and a mate. It is surely true however that without these two things our finest achievements would be no more than monuments to our passing.
The margins for survival or extinction are quite small. We live in a dynamic and changing environment, with varying pressures constantly at hand. Where these pressures are incremental or rhythmic in form, a species has its best chance of survival. For example, the constant background rhythms of the tides and the seasons form selection pressures that are rarely catastrophic, but none the less influential. A winter that is a little colder will not destroy a complete species, but will allow the survival of those members that, perhaps by chance, cope best with the colder season. This process will then have nudged the species in the direction of favoring the cold survival trait. Future generations tend to inherit this trait, since the survivors will breed next summer, those that did not survive will never breed again.
Played out over hundreds of millions of years, life adjusts, copes and explores the possibilities. No species is perfect, but survival alone is itself a triumph. Life on Earth is a breath taking panoply of diversity, complexity, magnificent beauty and sometimes absurdity, where every niche has been explored and occupied.
In the last paragraph of ‘Origin of Species’ Darwin wrote ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life’. We are part of that grandeur, and should feel as one with all life on Earth.