Kage Baker once commented that she could not recall when she first learned about evolution. (Neither can I.) The many details of its development were unfolded to her later: Lamarck, Darwin and Wallace; its symbiotic relationship with geology; devo-evo, punctuated equilibrium and the wonderful universe of genetics which Darwin never knew.
All those details she learned later. But evolution wasn’t something that came up a lot in casual conversation (at least, before our book-soaked teens) and so nothing stood in her mind as a revelation. It wasn’t revelatory. It was just part of How Things Work.
What Kage did find amazing was that she couldn’t pinpoint where she learned this. Darwin’s theory of evolution has been a big gaudy pin around which endless garish controversy has spun since its first publication. It’s one of the few major battles of the Victorian Age that is still being fought today. Malaria is one – colonial rule is another, still hanging on here and there – and opposition to evolution is still big as well. So it’s surprising that Kage just absorbed it with a lot of other childhood information.
One of the advantages she had was a Catholic education. The Roman Catholic Church has always maintained a polite indifference to evolution, unlike the more fundamentalist Christian sects. The Days of God’s Creation are not the same length as the secular ages of geology, and the Vatican is serenely untroubled by the difference. God started the engine of life, and what life got up to after that is its own business.
I think some of the Magisterium took a quiet lesson from all the brouhaha over Galileo. You never know when one of these scientific Johnnies would turn out to be mechanistically and embarrassingly correct, so it was best not to get too involved. Besides, I think some of the Cardinals may have actually read Mr. Darwin’s work, and noticed that never once did that good man venture an opinion as to the ultimate source of Creation. Indeed, Mr. Darwin ascribed the wonder of evolution as a glory to God.
Somehow, the fundamentalists have never noticed this. They don’t know what the word theory means, either.
Anyway, evolution was something Kage “always” knew. The interesting modern stuff – jumping and junk genes, punctuated equilibrium, telomeres and gene pairs, etc. – she learned later, as the evolution of evolution. But geology and genetics interested her much more than evolution itself, which was about as exotic to Kage as gravity. I mean, there it was: what’s to get excited about?
I told her lots of what was to get excited about over the years – I remained fascinated by the biological sciences – and she incorporated what pleased her into stories. The idea that living organisms could have more than 2 sets of genes; the romances of domestication, that have given us corn and tame cows and friendly wolves; what and how mutation really works. She mourned the impossibility of the X-Men, though. But who hasn’t?
Today being August 20th, we mark an anniversary. Quietly, as befits the dignified forum in which the theory of evolution was first published. On August 20, 1858, the Darwin-Wallace Papers were read before the august Linnean Society of London:
“On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection,” By Charles Darwin, Esq., F.R.S., F.L.S.., & F.G.S., and Alfred Wallace, Esq.
The papers were subsequently published in the Journal of that body. Darwin’s entire work, On The Origin of Species, was published in November of the following year. While some people feel Darwin rushed to this publication in order to prevent his long labour from being scooped by Wallace, one must also consider that Darwin knew his researches to be much the more thorough – and wanted to make sure Wallace got his due, though he had come late to the argument (and still espoused Lamarckism).
I’m pleased, on this anniversary, to know that even 50-odd years ago this was a world where a little girl – armed with a good encyclopedia and some careful teachers – could absorb Mr. Darwin’s beautiful theory of the structure of Life so early and so thoroughly that she could not afterwards remember when she learned it. That’s not only The Way Things Are, it’s The Way They Ought to Be.
So get out there and contribute to evolution, Dear Readers. Here, you ancient single-celled organism, you archeobacteria, you mitochondrium that’s been riding in my mother’s genes for the last 4 billion years – a glass with you!