Review of ‘Here on Earth’ by Tim Flannery – Colin Tudge – The Independent
March 11 2011, 9:29am
This past 150 years are widely seen as the golden age of biology – when it began to seem that all life is understandable and will soon be understood; and that what can be understood can and should be controlled for our own benefit. In 1859, in the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin first explained the mechanism of evolution "by means of natural selection". Then Gregor Mendel described the units of heredity now known as genes; then, in the early decades of the 20th century, Darwin's notions were fused with Mendel's to create "neodarwinism" – evolution conceived as a shift in the content of gene pools of populations.
In the mid 20th century, genes were shown to be made of DNA, and then a new generation of biologists in the 1960s showed (or seemed to show) how all of life could be explained by the interactions of what Richard Dawkins called "selfish" genes, as they battled, Darwinianly, for supremacy. The piece de resistance is genetic engineering: bits of DNA (genes) are shuffled and reconstructed to make brand new organisms.
Yet some felt right from the outset that the Darwinian analysis was flawed. It is rooted in excellent science – Darwin was one of the greatest field naturalists of all time – but it was also coloured, as all science is, by the zeitgeist. The prevailing theme of the early 19th century was of strife: social upheaval; the building of empires. Darwin was a gentle man, a liberal in the old sense and a humanitarian who railed against slavery, but the mechanism of natural selection that he saw as nature's great creative force is rooted in the perceived need for competition, implying conflict.