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Science, evolution and natural selection: in praise of Darwin at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn of Naples

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Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and other physical scientists ushered in a conception of the universe as matter in motion governed by natural laws. Their discoveries brought about a fundamental revolution, namely a commitment to the postulate that the universe obeys immanent laws that can account for natural phenomena. The workings of the universe were brought into the realm of science: explanation through natural laws. Darwin completed the Copernican revolution by extending it to the living world. Darwin demonstrated the evolution of organisms. More important yet is that he discovered natural selection, the process that explains the ‘design’ of organisms. The adaptations and diversity of organisms, the origin of novel and complex species, even the origin of mankind, could now be explained by an orderly process of change governed by natural laws. The origin of species and the exquisite features of organisms had previously been explained as special creations of an omniscient God. Darwin brought them into the domain of science.

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  1. Sigmund Freud referred to these two revolutions as ‘outrages’ inflicted upon humankind’s self-image and adds a third one, his own: ‘‘Humanity in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naïve self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. The third and most bitter blow upon man’s craving for grandiosity” was meted out in the twentieth century by psychoanalysis, revealing that man’s ego “is not even master in his own house” (Freud 1993 [1920], p. 562).

  2. In the sixth edition of Origin, these are chapters X–XIV, and the concluding chapter is XV, because Darwin added one earlier chapter about objections raised against his theory.


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Correspondence to Francisco J. Ayala.

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Ayala, F.J. Science, evolution and natural selection: in praise of Darwin at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn of Naples. HPLS 36, 444–455 (2015).

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