Public Release:  Darwin's seminal impact on biology, anthropology, philosophy and psychology

Universite de Montreal scientists celebrate 150 years of evolutionary theory

University of Montreal

Montreal, February 10, 2009 - The year 2009 marks the 150 anniversary of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species" - a seminal book that permeated countless disciplines and remains controversial. As February 12 also marks the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin's birth, the following Université de Montréal professors can comment on how the Father of Evolution influenced biology to anthropology and philosophy to psychology:

Darwin and biology

François-Joseph Lapointe, a biology professor at the Université de Montréal, has been teaching the theory of natural selection for two decades. The theory stipulates that all organisms best suited to their environment survive and pass on their genetic characteristics to succeeding generations. De facto, organisms that are less adapted tend to be eliminated.

"I have taught these principles to my girlfriend, my children and I have defended them to creationists. It is surely the one concept I have explained the most often in my life," says Lapointe.

According to Lapointe, On the Origin of the Species must be continually reinterpreted in light of new knowledge. This is contrary to the Bible, which creationists believe is a text set in stone.

One of Darwin's dreams was to elaborate a complete "tree of life" illustrating the interconnectivity between all species. For instance, whales are genetically closer to hippos than hippos are to cows. This means that we must look beyond morphological similarities between species.

Darwin's vision and observations has left all of us with a very rich heritage. "There is no doubt in my mind that Einstein and Darwin are the greatest scientists of all time," says Lapointe.

Darwin and Philosophy

Frédéric Bouchard of the Université de Montréal's Department of Philosophy believes Darwinism has profoundly shaken the foundations of philosophy.

"In 300 years from now, there is a greater chance that Darwin will be taught in a philosophy class than Immanuel Kant. He produced a shock wave that transformed every aspect of our perception of the world and ourselves. It's a revolution greater than the Copernican revolution," says Bouchard who teaches a class on the impact of the theory of evolution on philosophical thought.

"Darwin demonstrated that human beings are the result of chance. We could have been radically different or not even exist. The world could have remained populated by dinosaurs or bacteria. Natural selection has no precise objective. If we are here it's because our ancestors were lucky," explains Bouchard.

The notion of survival of the fittest remains the central and non-negotiable point of the theory. This notion, which wasn't in the first edition of On the Origin of the Species, removes all clear intention of natural selection."

Bouchard finds this notion liberating. "It is liberating to find one's own objectives in oneself rather than based on a divine plan."

The theory of evolution has a long future ahead of it and it isn't threatened by creationism. "Any alternative theory will have to provide a more extensive and complete explanation," says Bouchard. "And all science is incompatible with the creationist vision. Darwin is in good hands."

Darwin and anthropology

Bernard Chapais an anthropology professor at the Université de Montréal believes in the integration of pure and social sciences.

Although human beings aren't mentioned per se in On the Origin of the Species, Darwin was nonetheless convinced that his theory of natural selection also applied to human beings. That's why he published The Descent of Man 12 years later.

Darwin believed that natural selection didn't only shape human anatomy but also emotions and social instincts that we share with animals. Social scientists, however, have remained somewhat resistant to the idea that behavior and culture could have a biological basis.

According to Chapais, only since the 1970s has natural selection been convincingly applied to behavior. "This is thanks to observations made in primatology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and in behavioral ecology," says Chapais.

In his opinion, this bridge between social sciences and other disciplines is an important missing link, which he believes is at the root of a lack of consensus in social sciences.

"Anthropology is the only social science discipline in which behavioral biologists work alongside ethnologists. It is where gaps can be bridged between the two groups. Unfortunately, we neglect the larger interdisciplinary questions to focus on cultural particularities," says Chapais.

Darwin and Psychology

Daniel Paquette of the Université de Montréal's Department of Psychology believes the theory of evolution is fundamental to understanding our biology and psychology.

If ants live in a complex society and female lions take care of their young it is because they have programmed behavior selected by evolution and transmitted in part by the genetic code.

"Just like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology is built on the premise that our thoughts and behaviors as well as our physical traits are the result of evolution and subject to the mechanisms of natural selection and sexual selection," says Paquette.

Paquette is a researcher at the Institut de recherche pour le développement social des jeunes who for more than 20 years has studied emotions and aggression.

Today there is consensus that certain emotions are naturally programmed by evolution. A fear of the dark or of snakes is a reaction to danger. Sexual desire is a condition to reproduction. The same goes for aggression, love, and joy, which is a fundamental emotion indispensable to our survival.

Paquette is known for his theory of "activation relationship" which demonstrated that through physical games such as play fighting, a father transmits confidence to his young. Almost every mammal plays these games and they prepare a child for competition.

Paquette explains that competition between males is important. This is how males acquire exclusive access to females and it is how females choose their partners.

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Media contact:
Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins
International press attaché
Université de Montréal
Telephone: 514-343-7593
Email: sylvain-jacques.desjardins@umontreal.ca

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