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Survival of the Fittest: Darwin at 200

BU profs on the enduring importance of evolutionary theory


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In the slide show above, Thomas Glick, a CAS professor of history, discusses Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution, and its enduring relevance.

When Charles Darwin published his seminal 1859 book On the Origin of Species, he’d spent more than a decade testing his theories to make sure they’d stand up. Now, 200 years after his birth, his diligence continues to pay off: more than a century and a half later, biologists and historians around the world say his theories remain a perfect fit.

“With the advent of molecular biology, the amount of data supporting the Darwinian worldview has exploded,” says Charles DeLisi, BU’s Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and founding director and chair of the University’s Bioinformatics Graduate Program. “As a theory, it may rank with Newton’s theory of gravitation in its universality.”

Thomas Glick, a professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, agrees. “Evolution is the foundational theory of biology and therefore of all life sciences, including medicine,” he says. “It’s something that ought to be a part of everyone’s perspective on life, history, and society.”

To underscore that importance, Glick and DeLisi have teamed up with faculty from several other departments to organize a year’s worth of Darwin-related events to honor the 19th-century researcher’s bicentennial year, which begins on February 12, 2009. Plans include a lecture series, symposia, and theatrical productions.

Rebecca Kinraide, a lecturer in the CAS Writing Program, who will teach a class on Darwin as part of the celebration, says that the fact that creationism and intelligent design have brought Darwin back into public consciousness demonstrates how little people know about the man and the theory. “The very fact that people refer to Darwinism as though it were its own scientific theory shows they do not think of the theory of evolution as separate from the man who discovered it,” she says. “After all, we don’t refer to gravity as Newtonianism.”

Kinraide adds that natural selection is much more a part of daily life than most people realize. “The orange juice you had for breakfast came from oranges genetically modified to resist certain rot,” she says. “The antibiotics being overprescribed for viruses are allowing antibiotic-resistant strains of superbugs to evolve at an alarming rate, and sperm banks around the country screen out donors based on height, race, and intelligence.”

For more information about the Darwin bicentennial celebration, e-mail Glick at tglick@bu.edu.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.


One Comment on Survival of the Fittest: Darwin at 200

  • Scott C. Mohr on 02.25.2008 at 6:02 pm

    Minor correction

    Actually the “Origin” (Darwin’s monumental work laying out the theory of evolution via natural selection) was published in 1859 (not 1856). Since it’s a real landmark date (comparable to Einstein’s “annus mirabilis” of 1905) it’s important to get it right.

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