What Darwin Got Wrong

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Today is the 150th anniversary of biologist Charles Darwin's landmark scientific work The Origin of Species. As the founder of evolutionary theory, Darwin has long been criticized by creationists and proponents of "intelligent design." While scientists brush off creationism and intelligent design as bunk, they have also needed to correct some of Darwin's work over the years. Here's what some now believe Darwin got wrong.

  • Darwin and Racism  Dennis Sewell tells Time about "the way his ideas were abused in the 20th century and the way in which Darwin was wrong about certain key issues. He asserted that different races of mankind had traveled different distances along the evolutionary path — white Caucasians were at the top of the racial hierarchy, while black and brown people ranked below." Sewell explains, "he presented racial hierarchy as a matter of science. He also held that the poor were genetically second-rate — which inspired eugenics." (But as Atlantic writer David Shenk argues, much of the blame for distorting Darwin's theories on his half-cousin Francis Galton.)
  • Failure on Genetics  The New York Times's Olivia Judson explains. "Famously, he didn’t know how genetics works; as for DNA — well, the structure of the molecule wasn’t discovered until 1953. So today’s view of evolution is much more nuanced than his. We have incorporated genetics, and expanded and refined our understanding of natural selection, and of the other forces in evolution."
  • Blue-Eyed Mystery  The Seattle Times's Karen Kagan surveys "one of the unanswered questions about evolution that persist 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin." Why did blue eyes evolve several thousand years ago and why has the trait swept through the gene pool? "Darwin proposed that blue eyes spread among Europeans simply because they were sexually desirable. Some scientists find that theory plausible. Others propose that blue eyes are a side effect of some other trait that is evolutionarily useful — although as yet unidentified."
  • The Speciation Debate  The New York Times's Carol Kaesuk Yoon reports on the post-Darwin debate over what makes a species. "The problem lies in how biologists define a species. Today, the most common definition of a species is a group that is reproductively isolated from other groups [...] As a result, the origin of species is, necessarily, considered the origin of reproduction isolation. Yet both concepts would have been rather foreign to Darwin," she writes. Many species "are 'much messier' than a definition like the biological species concept allows. Consider asexual species. If a species is an entity that does not exchange genes with others, then every asexual organism, every individual bacterium, for example, could be considered a separate species, hardly a useful distinction. And the complications go on and on."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.