Documented proof of Darwin's natural selection

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      Westminster Abbey is a Gothic and cavernous place of cloisters, chambers, nooks, and crannies that has served as Britain's royal crowning place and national ossuary since the time of William the Conqueror, a thousand years ago. Adjacent to the House of Commons in London, the abbey, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with statues of generals, monuments to statesmen, poets, and martyrs, and the chest tombs of dead kings and queens.

      There is also a humble white marble slab, on the floor of the north side of the nave, near the quire. It's easy to miss because it's in a kind of corner, where it's dark, and it's also almost in the shadow of a garishly splendid monument to Sir Isaac Newton, which tends to hold the visitor's attention.

      But if you look for it, you'll find it easily enough.

      Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882.

      No stirring elegy. No moving psalm.

      Just that.

      I'd gone to see that marble slab recently, partly because I just never had, and partly because it had been occurring to me for some while that of all the great thinkers among the Enlightenment's first-born, from John Stuart Mill to Karl Marx, there was no one whose star still shines as bright in the firmament as Darwin's. Of them all, Darwin remains indispensable. But not, oddly enough, for his work as a scientist.

      Darwin was a great scientist, of course. He made important contributions to natural history, and even geology, but his most important contribution was not, strictly speaking, a scientific achievement.

      It was a way of explaining the "mystery of mysteries", the origin and diversity of the world's living things. But Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life presents not a single case of evolution by natural selection. Instead, it was, in Darwin's words, "one long argument".

      It was a theory with no hard science, no firsthand observation, to back it up. It was a work of exposition and logic. What Darwin had going for him, though, was a fine command of plain language and a body of evidence developed over more than two decades of investigation, observation, and reflection.

      Darwin's quarry was the deeply entrenched conviction that each of the Earth's myriad life forms was created by divine intervention only a few thousand years ago. Darwin argued that the living things of the world had evolved from, at most, a handful of ancestors of almost unimaginable antiquity.

      Darwin wasn't alone in this heresy, but what distinguished his argument was the contention that evolution occurred by a process of minute variation in type and form, caused by natural factors that constantly "selected" those heritable traits in animals and plants that favour advantage and survival.

      Evolution occurred at a glacial pace but it occurred nonetheless, and it was still going on, "daily and hourly", in life all around us, Darwin insisted. That was his resolution of the great mystery. God, maybe, but not necessarily. And, ultimately, it meant there was no reason to imagine that humanity was at the centre of any divine plan after all.

      For the time, this was a very dangerous idea.

      Darwin had gathered all manner of evidence from fossils, from pigeon breeders, and from his discoveries during his five-year tour as the naturalist aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle. But because evolution occurred so slowly, his thinking went, it wasn't possible to demonstrate its workings in case studies.

      Darwin had his defenders and champions, and he also had in his corner the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, sometimes referred to as the "codiscoverer" of what came to be called Darwin's theory. But Wallace, too, despite years of fieldwork, relied on inference and logic to make his case, in the form of a table of "proved facts" and "necessary consequences".

      Although Darwin could show that evolution by natural selection must be the answer, he couldn't present evidence for that answer in even a single case of evolution by natural selection, observed and documented in the "natural" world. No one, least of all Darwin, had ever seen it actually happen.

      As a consequence, long after Darwin's theory had come to form the theoretical basis for the biological sciences, there was still an embarrassing dearth of experimental research into evolution. It was still, outside of science, just an "opinion". While Darwin explained how the "natural" world worked in theory, no one, even into the 1970s, had been able to fully and methodically document and describe having actually seen it work that way in practice.

      This is where Peter and Rosemary Grant come in.

      Peter and Rosemary, both from England, met at the University of British Columbia in 1960. They soon married, and both went on to work as professors of evolutionary biology at Princeton University. Now both 71, the Grants are among the most successful and important collaborations in the history of science. In 2005 they won the coveted Balzan Prize, which is equal in prestige to the Nobel Prize and brings almost three times the cash: the equivalent of about $3 million in Swiss francs.

      The Grants have produced a body of research that is so exhaustive, so exacting and thorough, that many ornithologists fear it will never be replicated. The object of the Grants' obsessions is Galápagos finches. These are the birds so closely associated with Darwin that they're commonly called Darwin's finches.

      It was Darwin's encounter with the archipelago's 13 finch species in 1835, during his five-week Galápagos sojourn as the naturalist aboard the Beagle, that caused his epiphany and produced evolution's great eureka moment. That's the legend, anyway.

      The truth is it was long after his return to England, and after the specimens he'd collected had been properly classified by British taxonomists, that the significance of the birds, and of all those other peculiar endemic species he'd found on the Galápagos Islands, began to dawn on Darwin.

      It wasn't until Peter and Rosemary Grant began making their annual pilgrimages to the Galápagos island of Daphne Major, a forbidding place of black lava and hellish summers, that the finches began to fully reveal themselves to science.

      The Grants began their fieldwork on Daphne Major in 1973. They've put in 35 field seasons, and they're still at it. (The Grants will be presenting an overview of their most recent findings in a free lecture at the University of British Columbia on November 20.)

      The Grants have documented the phenomenon that Darwin could only surmise by deduction and conjecture. It turns out that the mechanism of evolution can be observed moving through nature, not just in a laboratory or in a human-altered environment, and it doesn't always move at a glacial pace. The Grants have watched it happen, up close.

      Biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant have spent 35 field seasons observing how natural selection has resulted in the evolution of Galápagos finches.

      Specifically, what Peter and Rosemary have done is present the world with a rare and dramatic glimpse of variation caused by natural selection from one generation of animals to the next. And down through several generations of Galápagos finches, from different species, they've shown how heritable traits are "selected" so as to result in evolution.

      As evolution occurs, even when it occurs quickly, it's usually barely detectable. The tiniest change can mean survival or extinction. In the case of the Galápagos finches, what matters is often barely measurable changes in the size and shape of the finches' beaks.

      "That's the really difficult thing to do," Peter told me the other day. "You don't want to try it with earthworms."

      It isn't that Darwin's theory had not been shown to work in practice before the Grants. It's just that no one had documented it in nature so completely and methodically.

      Before the Grants, the case of the English peppered moth was one of the best-known studies of natural selection driving evolution. But the story of the peppered moth unfolds in a completely human-altered environment. Its observed evolution was in response to the rise and decline of the Industrial Revolution.

      Prior to the advent of the "dark satanic mills" and the clouds of coal smoke and ash that settled over the English countryside, peppered moths were light-coloured, with specks and streaks of black, a colour scheme suited perfectly to camouflage because of the moths' habit of alighting and resting on tree trunks, on similarly coloured lichens.

      In the poisoned air of the Industrial Revolution, the lichens diminished in abundance and trees were commonly blackened with soot. This trend favoured a black-coloured mutation in peppered moths and caused the light-coloured moths to nearly disappear. In recent years, however, with the decline of both factories and coal power, the light-coloured moths have become dominant again.

      Nowadays, evolution by natural selection is being observed in "the wild" among sticklebacks in British Columbia coastal lakes, among fruit flies in South America, and also in laboratories, on an hourly basis, around the world.

      In his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, a 1994 book about the Grants and the significance of their work, author Jonathan Weiner sets out the paradox of the persistent hostility to Darwin's "theory". Evolution denial is a common habit of some of Darwin's most privileged beneficiaries in the United States, almost always evangelical Protestants, whose wealth often depends solely upon Darwin being right.

      The paradox occurs in an especially bizarre way in the American South, in the "cotton belt", where the health of the cotton crop and the wealth that derives from it depend completely upon the application of Darwinian principles in the laboratory. It is only by the close observation of evolution by natural selection occurring in various cotton blights and pests that science has managed to devise at least temporarily effective pesticides and herbicides.

      The paradox deepens in the recurring failure of those blight and pest remedies. There are now moths in Louisiana that can ruin cotton crops, and they're now 200 times more resistant to pesticides than they were before they first encountered them. Reject Darwin and you'll never understand why that happens. You'll continue to employ pesticides, and you'll find yourself in a losing battle, precisely because evolution happens.

      It happens by natural selection. Resistant strains emerge by natural selection for certain heritable traits. Life is not static. Species are not fixed and unchanging. They evolve, and if Darwin were wrong, the branches of science known as immunology, bacteriology, and virology would never produce any results. It would all be quack science.

      "There is no new theoretical structure that has come along since Darwin," Grant told me. "His ideas have been extended through genetics and have been modified and elaborated upon, but his ideas and observations and explanations have withstood the test of time."

      And so Darwin prevails. Evolution is driven by hybridization and by sex selection, but the main engine is natural selection. It is how the earth ended up so rich in the diversity and abundance of life. It is evidence against the founding texts of all the world's great religions. It is evidence for life as a phenomenon that is constantly changing, constantly innovating, all on its own.

      It is a rational explanation, subject to testable hypotheses. It is free for the asking and available to everyone, regardless of culture or class. It can account for everything from the virulence of diseases to the complexity of the human eye to the origin of humankind itself. No stirring elegy. No moving psalm.

      Darwin prevails, more than anyone else. Charles Robert Darwin. Born 12 February 1809. Died 19 April 1882.

      UBC's Beaty Biodiversity Museum will host Peter and Rosemary Grant, who will present their lecture Evolution of Darwin's Finches at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday (November 20) in Room 100 of the Wesbrook Building (6174 University Boulevard). Admission is free.

      Links: Rosemary Grant's page at Princeton
      Peter Grant's page at Princeton
      PBS Evolution Library - Finch Beak Data Sheet




      Nov 17, 2007 at 12:33pm

      Is it just me, or is anyone else struck by the haunted image of Darwin in that photograph, which has come to symbolize the man and his great theory. To me that image betrays the look of a man who grew up believing in God, and ultimately convinced himself that God did not exist. His gravestone, as simple and humble as it is, bears witness to the sadness of a man who convinced himself that he was not created in the image of God, as he once believed, but that he was in fact an accident, no more significant or important than a spec of mould on a piece of bread in his cupboard.

      For Darwin these were weighty issues. Not so for those who champion evolution and revel in Darwin’s theory as “proof” that there is no God. They celebrate the man and put their faith in his theory and they dismiss out of hand any faith that contradicts there own. Evolution is their god, and Darwin their Christ. They eagerly hunt after heretics and apostates and find easy targets in the religious right. They forbid the speaking or teaching of any other faiths other than their own, and bring to bear the full force of the state against anyone who would dare speak the heresy of another faith. In this sense, there is a strong similarity between evolutionary fundamentalism and the medieval church. These are indeed dark times for those of opposing faiths.

      But, that’s not why I am really writing. I too have found proof of Darwin’s theory. Every summer my skin goes several shades darker and in the winter it grows several shades lighter. I also find that if I visit sunnier climates in the winter, my skin grows several shades darker again. Based on my observations over the past 40 years of study, I have found that this is not a trait peculiar to me, but that it present across my entire species and even in my children. It is both inter and intra generational. You see you do not need to study finch beaks and moths for 40 years to see proof of evolution in progress; you only need to reduce the SPF rating of your sunscreen.

      John Burns

      Nov 17, 2007 at 1:40pm

      But if one were inclined - I'm not, but if one were - couldn't one argue that the pleasing neatness of evolutionary theory is proof itself of divinity. Shurely, one could argue - again, if one were inclined - that only God could anticipate the elastic nature of life and build in a dynamic, responsive, interactive mechanism that could grow with the various systems (humans, finches, Internet posters) as their habitats change over time?

      John Burns

      Nov 17, 2007 at 1:41pm

      PS. It sounds to me like you'd do well to invest in a hat.

      Babel Boy

      Nov 22, 2007 at 6:47am

      How ironic it is that Terry Glavin's fine article on Darwin should appear in a Georgia Straight issue with "halo effect" on the cover. For no other person in history has so undeservedly benefited from a halo effect than Darwin.

      Darwin's theoretical errors were legion and his intellectual honesty doubtful, but his most embarrassing shortcoming was the fact that not only did he not articulate how species originate, he apparently did not even know what a species is. To Darwin a species was the same as a breed, or race, or variety, only more so. A species is a group of organisms that are capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. Today we know that "species" is a statement about chromosomal compatibility. Darwin ignored the proper definition of species because it was "an inconvenient truth," to borrow a trendy phrase. Even Darwin's bud, T.H. Huxley, called him on this point, to no avail.

      Uber-Darwinists like Peter and Rosemary Grant have perpetuated this gross error for 150 years now. Their presentation was very entertaining and their data were intriguing. They showed, for instance that after a drought in 1977 the beak sizes of a species of finch lurched way to the large end of the beak-spectrum. And this, Peter Grant claimed, was evolution. Wrong. Evolution is the production of new species, and, like Darwin, the Grants were not looking at new species, they were looking at a new sub-species, or race. This is not evolution.

      John Burns

      Dec 10, 2007 at 9:00pm

      Please note that comments on this story continue over on the <a href="/article-123577/much-work-still-needed-to-prove-evolution" target="_self">Letters page</a>.


      Mar 12, 2009 at 9:02am

      I do not understand how Terry Glavin can claim that the Grant's have documented the "proof" of natural selection as on of the mechanisms in darwinism. He is definitly not a scientist at all. It does not show anything more than me getting a tan in the summer wil document evolution. I have read that the finches in question actually got a smaller beak some time after the drought had ended, and many of them actually interbreed which would suggest they may not be different species at all.

      I have kept an open mind for many years regarding the "science" supporting the evolution theory, thinking that true science will eventually give some documentation, however small, but this has not been given 150 years after Darwins Origin of the species.

      The theory of evolution is a dogma, nothing else. It has no scientific evidence whatsoever, and serious scientists know that. I suggest the reading of a book from Norwegian professor Peder A. Tyvand, "Darwin 200 year" I do not know if it can be found in English, but I believe i may.
      Nyvand is a professor in math and physics, and give a good account of the different "proof" for Darwinism. The most interesting part is the method of description entering into the science of biology, algorithmics.
      As an IT professional I know about algorithms, and I find it very very interesting that scientists in different fields now start using algorithms. Dead nature is not algoritmic, living nature is algorithmic. This makes it very clear what I, and I believe many others, have intuitively understood to be false. Imagine an organism of specie A evolving into an organism of specie B over even millions of years. This could be a small dinosaur turning into a bird, for example. Imagine all the in-between forms of this creature that had to exist. It front legs slowly turning into wings for example. How will this creature live as any of these in-betweenies? It cannot yet fly and the form it had to survive as a small dino with the necessary tools etc. are now disappearing. These in-betweens will simply not survive. Another question based on a laymans intuition is, where are all the fossils showing these middle-forms. There are none. Use simple statistics. A change from A to B has to happen totally randomly. Imagine all the middleforms that had to exist. The geological layers had to show evidence of this. Statistically you would expect to find thousands or even millions of fossils of these inbetweenies for every one fossil of an organism that could actually live.
      Algorithmics shows this cannot happen. Everytime you enter a mutation into an algorithm it most likely stop working. This is well in line with the fact that almost all mutations are bad for the organism. The ones that are not just has no effect.

      How come that darwinists has such an easy way of explaining life. You find a stone arrowhead and everyone will say this is from the stone age and made by man - or at least some intelligence. You find a living cell with a complexity grander than NASA's entire spaceprogram combined, and yet this developed accidentally, by chance. Sorry guys, I don't buy that. Science cannot to this day cross the boundary from chemistry to biology. We cannot create a living cell from scratch with all the scientists in the world today. Doesn't that make you think a little bit Mr. Glavin?

      The truth is accually that this theory is a dogma (allmost like a religion) and its believers do not ask questions. I admit I am a protestant christian, and we protestants ask questions and especially when religion is concerned. Or at least many protestants do. I agree that many doesn't, but they should.

      I believe the future is very interesting because science will one day take of the yoke of darwin, and we may see a reformation and a renescance. I hope it will be in my lifetime.

      Have a great one.

      Roger J

      Nov 14, 2009 at 12:20pm

      Contrary to the comment of "rainmaker" Charles Darwin is decidedly NOT my Christ - and neither is Christ! I read an awful lot of pontification in these responses to Mr. Glavin's superb article.

      Unfortunately for the critics Mr. Glavin uses logic and scientific reason to show that Darwin was a true genius who deduced, correctly, that evolution is simply an uncontravertible (and inconvenient) truth, as evidence so clearly by the Grant's recent brilliant scientific studies.

      From the negative comments posted I see not one jot of evidence to the contrary, nor have I ever seen one jot of evidence to show that Darwin ever denounced god. He just knew that the truth had to be told.

      It is shocking to see his name besmirched by religious folks who's only defence is to attack the character of a quiet self-effacing man who opened our eyes as to who we are and where we came from.

      I for one accept the Catholic church's sincere apology for their wrongful condemnation of Mr. Darwin for more than a century. I for one, would like to see these same critics subject the bible (or whatever holy book represents their particular religion) to the same scrutiny that they try to subject so unsuccessfully to Darwin's theory of evolution. But for that I might as well whistle "Dixie"!


      Dec 13, 2009 at 7:32pm

      EVOLUTION is real. Darwin's THEORY of evolution - that we ALL evolved from a single cell which mutated out of the Readily Accepted Scientific Big Bang Theory, (before which there was nothing at all,) Isn't just missing a link, it is void of any link.
      All species will evolve to adapt to their climate. It is a fabulous design - or accidentally awesome coincidence - depending on your disposition.
      Darwin's theory isn't an insult to Theism, iDarwin's theory compliments it. The theory of evolution - we all mutated from a cell - takes a far greater leap of faith than theism.
      Give them the respect they deserve!


      Sep 6, 2010 at 5:59pm

      Look at the picture, Darwin is right!! He even looks like a ape!!

      Jason Tannery

      Sep 1, 2011 at 3:07pm

      Genesis 2:21-22, "And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."

      Genesis 11:9, "Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." From Genesis 11:9, it is clear that languages were not diversified prior to the event of Genesis 11:9. Or in other words, human beings spoke one language prior to the event of Genesis 11:9..