The Galapagos Islands offer an amazing collection of unique species and fauna. Made famous by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, partially based on a three week trip he spent on the islands, and Ecuador has decided to cash in. Much like a species adapting to a new environment, the Ecuadorian government has adapted to the international interest in the islands by imposing a number of fees to visit. $20 for a visitor form. $100 for a non-Ecuadorian to visit. Plus a monopoly on plane tickets to the islands and ferries around the island makes it an expensive place to visit.
But did you know that before Darwin there was a french biologist called Lamarck who had his own theory of evolution? Now I’m far from an expert in biology, so I will probably mangle the explanation somewhat. But from what I understand, Lamarck’s theory was that the environment of the parents affected the evolution of the offspring. Now of course it makes sense that the environment of a pregnant animal will affect the offspring, but Lamarck’s theory includes the environment preceding the conception. It is a theory echoed somewhat in certain psychological theories that involve memory imprinting from our ancestors, as well as religious notions such as original sin, where we are indelibly marked by the sins of our ancestors, and could also be seen as a version of reincarnation, with our previous lives being the lives of our ancestors.
Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is often also mangled, with the term “fittest” taken to mean strongest or fastest or in the greatest shape. But in fact it refers to adaptability, or the ability to “fit” in to the environment. Most horrifically, the idea of the survival of superior genetics heavily influenced Nazi theory and politics. And what was the end result? The supposedly stronger, fitter Aryans lost to the Slavs, who were better adapted to the Soviet winter, and a group of weaker, slower scientists (including and heavily influenced by Jewish scientists) adapted to their new environment by building the nuclear bomb, the most destructive weapon in the history of the planet. The defeat of Nazi Germany should have simultaneously been viewed as a defeat for this ignorant understanding of Darwin’s theories. And yet, most people today still think of “survival of the fittest” as some how relating to strength. But which creature currently rules the planet? Not the strongest, or the fastest, or the fittest, or the biggest, or the smallest, not by a long way. I only know one animal that can adapt to the heat of the Saharan desert, the cold of Alaska, the altitude of the Himalayas, that can even live virtually on the sea as some Filipino tribes manage. Our omnivorous digestive system that means we can adapt to so many different types of food, and our understanding of making tools and clothes to suit our environments has helped spread the human being across the entire planet. How much longer that dominance can last in an age of over-population and climate change is debatable, but it’s been a pretty impressive run so far. And we may even adapt to this by colonising another planet.
I think one reason Lamarckian theory is ignored is because of attacks on Darwin by creationists. Scientists have had to dig in their heels to defend against ridiculous accusations from religious fundamentalists with no interest in science. So to suggest anything other than Darwinian evolution is correct may open the floodgates to the creationist critics, the most vocal and least creditable critics of Darwin. Yet, while typically considered disproved in the scientific community, Lamarck has some modern support, you can read a couple of interesting articles supporting his theories here – http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411880/a-comeback-for-lamarckian-evolution/
As for my beliefs, I’m unsure. However, the random mutations in Darwin’s theory are too random for me, I believe our dna is more adaptable than Darwin may have given it credit for (although perhaps I too misunderstood Darwin). I don’t think it’s something just decided at birth, but heavily influenced by our environment, by the environment of our mothers during pregnancy, and possibly (as per Lamarck) by the environment of our parents prior to our conception. But what do I know?