In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin recapped all the evidence he had so meticulously presented for his theory of common descent. And then took a step back to ponder where it was all going, and what it all meant.
When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!
He predicted that the theory would open up rich new fields of scientific research in biology, geology, paleontology, psychology and anthropology. Armed with the understanding that all individuals of all species are related, however distantly, that species have been shaped by their environments over the eons, scientists would look backwards, and outwards, free of counterproductive labels and dogmas, answering many current questions and discovering even more interesting questions to ask. This prediction would prove to be correct. As Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
And then he went one step further:
When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.
What ennobles them? Simply having such a long and complex history. They—and all their ancestors—were lucky or tough enough to survive everything Nature could throw at them. Every being now living, worm or eagle, peasant or aristocrat, is descended from a long line of survivors. That’s a pedigree anyone should be proud of.
Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity; for the manner in which all organic beings are grouped, shows that the greater number of species of each genus, and all the species of many genera, have left no descendants, but have become utterly extinct.
Is it all doom and gloom, though? Not at all.
As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
I don’t know about that “perfection,” but hey, that’s Victorians for you.
It’s interesting to note how Darwin’s attitude contrasts with that of creationists, then or now. To them, the idea of being related to apes is just as abhorrent as the idea the Bible isn’t literally true. Animals aren’t ennobled by their connection with us; it’s we who are demeaned by our connection with them. The only way Humankind can be seen as special is through our creation, not our history or achievements. And they certainly don’t look forward to a far distant future where our descendants—however different they’ll be from us—will continue to thrive.
The book concludes with a final appeal, not to the truth, but the beauty of his theory.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, 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.
Darwin’s no poet, I grant you, but this passage works. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the theory of evolution—with its notions of deep time and the fundamental interconnectedness of all living beings—tells a far more satisfying story than any creation myth our various cultures have cooked up. Our long journey from the trees—and before that, from the swamps and the seas—has made us what we are, flaws and all. We dishonour our ancestors by ignoring their struggles, their achievements, and yes, their failures. We honour them by remembering their lives, and continuing the journey they made possible for us.
Happy 200th, Mr. Darwin.