Ideas

Imagining the World: Darwin and the idea of evolution

Darwin's ideas about evolution shifted the way we think about the place of humans in the world: we're not so special, we just have a bigger brain and opposable thumbs. What else can we learn from Darwin in this late stage of civilisation? A discussion from the 2019 Stratford Festival with culture critic Adam Gopnik, evolutionary biologist Maydianne Andrade and science journalist Ivan Semeniuk.

Charles Darwin's theory about insects and plants, birds and humans, is also true about viruses

Darwin's ideas about evolution shifted the way we think about the place of humans in the world. What else can we learn from Darwin in this late stage of civilisation? (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, what he had in mind primarily was the evolution of animal species, and the immensely long timeline of trial-and-error natural selection that had gone into the making of the world he had around him.

Darwin's concept of evolution was a remarkable insight, a revelation of the unbroken road that connects every living thing, back into the darkest recesses of prehistory. 

It turns out that everything Darwin hypothesized about insects and plants, birds and humans, is also true about viruses.

Viruses evolve, too — just a lot faster. If it takes thousands of generations and millions of years for humans to evolve from apes, a virus, it turns out, can evolve into a new form in a matter of weeks.

If the slow churn of the millennia has allowed us as humans to adapt at a similar pace to everything else, the evolution of viruses hasn't allowed us any such luxury — we're now forced to adapt socially at a far faster pace. Rethinking how we relate to each other, and what's necessary for our mutual survival, has to be our primary objective, local politics and nationalism aside.

People were shocked in 1859, when Charles Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species, revealed his explanation of evolution and natural selection. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Viruses have that evolutionary function: paying no attention to borders, nations, genders or skin colour, they create new forms of social behaviour, reminding us that we are one people, forcing us to work together.

As writer Laura Spinner puts it "infectious diseases have shaped social evolution no less powerfully than have wars, revolutions and economic crises."  

Guests in this episode:

Maydianne Andrade is a Jamaican-born Canadian ecologist. She teaches at the University of Toronto, Scarborough where she is Canada Research Chair in Integrative Behavioural Ecology and researches the mating habits of Black Widow spiders.  

Ivan Semeniuk covers science for The Globe and Mail. An award-winning journalist, editor and broadcaster, he has previously worked for the journal Nature, New Scientist magazine and Discovery Channel. 

Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1986. He has written fiction, humour, book reviews, profiles, and reported pieces from abroad. He was the magazine's Paris correspondent from 1995 to 2000. In 2011 he was the CBC Massey lecturer
 



* This episode was recorded at the Stratford Festival in July, 2019. It was produced by Philip Coulter and edited by Jackson Weaver. Special thanks to Ann Swerdfager and to artistic director Antoni Cimolino.

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