Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Evolution, popular fiction, and the Lost World

Biology in fiction quote of the day:
Conan Doyle was born in the year of [Charles Darwin's] The Origin. By his fifty-third birthday, the theory of evolution had become so widely accepted that a literary hack could use it as the centrepiece of a work of fiction. Doyle  (who had read the reports of the British explorer who discovered the unique island in the sky) seized he chance and his book sold hundreds of thousands of copies to a well-primed public.
The quote comes from geneticist Steve Jones' entertaining book about Darwin's work as a scientist and evolution:  The Darwin Archipelago: The Naturalist's Career Beyond Origin of Species.

The "work of fiction" he's describing is Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World,  set on isolated plateau high above the Amazon jungle where dinosaurs and other great beasts live side-by-side with humans and "primitive ape-men".  Evolution is a running theme in the novel.

One of Doyle's characters - Professor Challenger - is an expert on the evolutionary theories of Darwin and August Weisman. He pontificates on how animals that we think of as being separated by millions of years of evolutionary history could end up living together in the present day:
"My own reading of the situation for what it is worth—" he inflated his chest enormously and looked insolently around him at the words—"is that evolution has advanced under the peculiar conditions of this country up to the vertebrate stage, the old types surviving and living on in company with the newer ones. Thus we find such modern creatures as the tapir—an animal with quite a respectable length of pedigree—the great deer, and the ant-eater in the companionship of reptilian forms of jurassic type. So much is clear. 
Challenger is arrogant and annoying and challenges the scientific dogma of his colleagues who are, not surprisingly, reluctant to believe his claims about living dinosaurs. But even though he's outside the scientific mainstream, he's not claiming that evolution doesn't happen, but that it works on a different time scale, at least in exotic isolated locations.

That's the point that Jones makes in his comment: Doyle's "paleontological romance", as one contemporary review described it,  takes the workings of evolution for granted. And that scientific point of view didn't seem to affect the popularity of the novel a century ago.

When creationists claim that there is enough "controversy" about evolution that it should be taught side-by-side with creationism (or "intellectual design") in the science classroom, they are ignoring the fact that evolutionary theory has been accepted science - even in the popular imagination - for well over a century.

But Jones' contention that Doyle was a hack?  That I take exception to.

Further reading:
Image: still from the The Lost World (1925) movie


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ray thor said...

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