Charles Darwin and evolution

It was Charles Darwin’s birthday on 12 February, so it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at our namesake. In today’s post we’re reflecting on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Next week, we’ll be tying this back to our work as Darwin Innovation Group, with a piece about the evolution of transport.

On the Origin of Species: Darwin’s theory of evolution

The concept of species changing across generations existed before Darwin put forward his ideas. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had previously touched on the subject of different species sharing a common ancestor, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had put forward his own ideas about evolution at the start of the nineteenth century.

However, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 is considered a turning point for biology. Darwin named and defined the concept of natural selection, a way of explaining the gradual changes that take place in evolution.

Natural selection is also known as ‘survival of the fittest’, and it’s the method by which useful traits tend to be passed down to offspring. A ‘useful trait’, in this context, is anything that gives a living creature a survival or reproductive advantage.

Occasionally, an individual will be born with a quality that gives it an edge over other members of its species. Natural selection means that this individual is more likely than others to breed, passing this useful quality down to its children.

For example, imagine a mouse that’s born with the ability to run faster than other mice. Because this mouse is better at escaping predators, it’s likely to live long enough to breed. If its offspring inherit this quality, the next generation will have more fast mice, which will also have a survival advantage and are likely to have children of their own. In this way, the number of fast mice increases with every generation, and the number of slow mice may begin to dwindle as predators go after the easier targets.

Useful traits can differ according to the environment. For example, African elephants have much larger ears than Asian elephants. This is because African elephants live in hotter climates, and heat is quickly lost from their broad ears, helping to keep them cool; they can also use their ears as fans. The trait of large ears evolved among African elephants because these ears gave them a survival advantage in hot environments.

Nobody consciously decides which traits are better; they just naturally increase an individual’s chances of living to reproductive age or having more children. In this way, the traits are ‘selected’ by nature, leading to the term ‘natural selection’.

Darwin’s ideas weren’t all correct. On the Origin of Species supported Lamarck’s hypothesis that offspring could inherit non-genetic traits developed over the course of the parents’ lives; for example, if a lion became a stronger runner on account of exercising its leg muscles, its cubs might be born as naturally stronger runners. This hypothesis is now discredited, and we understand that a parent’s actions over the course of their life don’t change the genes they eventually pass down in this way. (We’re not going to go into the question of epigenetic inheritance here, but it’s an interesting topic to research if you’d like to know more.)

Other scientific thinkers have tested and refined Darwin’s ideas since he put them forward, corroborating the elements that hold up and discarding the elements that don’t. In a sense, the theory of evolution has itself evolved.

Why is evolution called a theory?

It can be confusing that evolution is called a ‘theory’. In casual conversation, the word ‘theory’ is often used to mean an unproved idea: something that fits the facts but isn’t necessarily true. Because of this, some people hear the phrase ‘theory of evolution’ and think that Darwin’s theory was just speculation.

This confusion comes about because the scientific definition of ‘theory’ is different. In the world of science, a theory in the sense of ‘something unproved’ is instead called a hypothesis. If the hypothesis is extensively tested and appears to be accurate, it then becomes a theory.

In other words, a scientific theory is a concept that has undergone thorough testing and is now considered to be true. The theory of evolution and the theory of relativity aren’t simply speculation; they have held up to testing over the years, and they are now widely considered by the scientific community to be reliable explanations of the facts of our reality.

The evolution of transport

The concept of evolution has given us a versatile metaphor for talking about the way other things change over time. For example, we might talk about the evolution of transport.

Of course, the evolution of transport isn’t the same as the evolution of life, because humans make conscious decisions to guide the way transport changes. However, there are similarities in the way some developments spread quickly and others are left behind.

In our next article, we talk about how transportation has evolved up to this point, how it’s changing now and how we expect it to change in the future.

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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