Tomorrow is the world Aids Day. The absence of effective cures warrants campaigns to prevent the spread of this killer cellular mutative disease. Yet another silent mutation, cancer, continues to claim many lives, eluding a decisive cure. Could it be possible that these mutations are part of the evolutionary process signalling that in a very distant future, life-forms on this planet could be those that are completely unrecognisable today?
Such are the questions that arise in the 200th year of Charles Darwin’s birth. During this preceding week of November 150 years ago Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published, revolutionising scientific and rational thinking. This, for the first time, scientifically established that all living beings originated through entirely natural processes. So antagonistic was this to the reigning religious and philosophical view of the Divine Creator that Darwin himself once jocularly labelled himself as the ‘devil’s chaplain’. In a fascinating biography of The Origin of Species, Janet Browne says that it “in many ways [it] is the story of the modern world”.
Not surprisingly, since the time of its publication, The Origin continues to be at the centre of many controversies. Even those who could not negate the irrefutable, scientific foundations of evolution, could not come to terms with the fact that it was threatening the existence of theology. From this sprang the postulate that the shaping of Earth and its inhabitants is a continuous process controlled by laws that god had instituted in the beginning. To this came the retort that if this be true, then god must be the most unemployed and bored entity since the laws are running their natural course. Such a deep churning on matters of theology and morality continue even today despite the fact that evolution has been scientifically accepted.
Darwin himself chose not to enter this controversy. Only 12 years later in The Descent of Man, he famously said “it has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known; but... it is those who know little and not those who know much who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
Some of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century took up cudgels on behalf of Darwin. The most famous of them all, Thomas Huxley — who incidentally coined the term ‘agnostic’ — cast himself as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. He passionately defended and propagated the question of ape ancestry and the close anatomical relationship between the humans and the primates. This led many for nearly a century to search for the ‘missing link’. Darwin himself had, however, suggested a common ancestry for both humans and primates closest to us like gorillas and chimpanzees.
Paying homage to Darwin, the confirmation of this has come, literally from afar — the discovery of the fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus, ‘Ardi’ for short, a hominid species that lived 4.4 million years ago in the Afar Rift region of northeastern Ethiopia. While this was discovered in 1992, it took all these years of research by an international scientific team, whose results were published in Science in October this year. This now establishes the fact that there is a direct evolutionary genetic link between today’s humans and our earliest pre-human ancestors. The humans did not evolve from the primates but both evolved from a common ancestor which is yet to be found. While our ancestors were evolving in a specifically ‘human’ direction, primate ancestors were evolving in a specifically ‘chimp’ direction.
These exciting discoveries, providing us very deep insights, reassert that evolution takes place essentially in the concrete material conditions and the needs for that particular life form to survive and develop. The evolution of the modern human being, the development of brain as the highest form of matter, continues to be shaped by the ceaseless man-nature dialectic.
While such discoveries should have settled the age-old philosophical debate between idealism and materialism, an opinion poll in the New York Times in November 2004 showed that 55 per cent of the respondents believed that god created humans in their present form. Thus, the philosophical debates of human and moral consciousness will continue. The majesty of discoveries like Ardi, however, reasserts the grandeur of nature as Darwin said in The Origin: “There is grandeur in this view of life... whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
As humanity continues with its endeavours to better understand its evolution, and on that basis find solutions for diseases like Aids and cancer, the fact remains that all this is the unfolding of the man-nature dialectic. Darwin’s own assessment of his work continues to remain as relevant today as it was when he published The Origin. “Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal