jouw wetenschapsgids in de hoofdstad

jouw wetenschapsgids in de hoofdstad

#FFF: Something evolutionary about February

Our brains are prone to look for and find patterns even where they don’t really exist. When the birth or death of several prominent scientists occur very close to each other in one month throughout the centuries, you might think that there ought to be something special about this period (just don’t ask a statistician “what are the chances that…”). And while astrology is still to provide any proof of its credibility, let’s talk about few interesting people born in February who contributed tremendously to the theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin did not “invent” evolution.

And he never claimed he did. Many people don’t know or forget that the full title of his book is “On the origin of species by means of natural selection”. His work was very little concerned with proving that evolution is real, but with rather showing how evolution can be driven by environmental pressure. In fact, the theory of evolution existed much before Darwin was even born. As early and 600 years before him, a Persian scientist and philosopher known as Tusi, and born on the 19th of February 1201, put forward a theory for the evolution of matter in the universe. Of it, the evolution of species is only but a part. He even talks about heritability of traits playing part in this strive to change.

The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable. As a result, they gain advantages over other creatures. […] The bodies are changing as a result of the internal and external interactions.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi

And that happened about 800 years before we even knew that DNA and changes in it are responsible for heritability of traits and the variance in these traits!

Evolving dragonfly wings and “king” bees with ovaries

Another scientist, the Dutchman Jan Swammerdam, was too born in February, but 400 years after Tusi. His biology work was mainly focused on the exploration of the development of insects – their metamorphosis. Until his work was published, the larvae, the pupil and the insect were considered different individuals. He was one of the first to use the novelty that was the light microscope. His dissections proved that certain features of the adult insect form are already present in the pre-adult form before it molts to turn into its mature form.

Watch how an embryo develops
He was also the first one to shake the very much patriarchal world at the time, by showing that that King-bee had ovaries and was actually a Queen-bee. Much later we saw that the development of a single organism mimics the evolutionary development of its species. This is true for insects as much as it is true for mammals and Swammerdam’s work inevitably contributed to this knowledge.
Genetics meet natural selection through math
Natural selection is a mechanism for generating an exceedingly high degree of improbability.
Sir Ronald Fisher

Sir Ronald Fisher was much more than a statistician. He used the power of statistics and mathematics to show how genetics and natural selection were interconnected. Born also in February, he is the most modern of our trio of the “February evolutionists”. His work during the 20th century helped synthesize a modern theory of evolution from the works of both Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.

He showed that natural selection can very well change the allele frequency in a population and the contribution of the two phenomena to evolution are not by any means mutually exclusive. He is also responsible for the development of the resampling tests (most notably – the Fisher test) widely used today to test research hypothesis and ultimately access with statistical significance the results of clinical trials and other biological experiments.

Is February the month of evolution then?

If you need a specific period over the year to celebrate scientific progress, especially in the field of biology, February might be a good candidate. Additionally, the actual day evolution is celebrated on the birthday of Charles Darwin and hence better known as Darwin-day, but now we know that it has got to be much more than that. It happens to be on 12th of February… Coincidence?