When I wrote “Darwin Had It Right” two weeks ago, I was waxing euphoric that Darwin recognized that “life (had) originated only once.” I thought that this was a profound, incredibly lucid moment given that Darwin did not have the evidence that we have now – mainly the genetic code. This revelation comes from the heavily footnoted “Darwin” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore first published in the UK in 1991. These are two acclaimed historians and their book is viewed as a definitive biography of Darwin’s life. Moore has degrees in Science, Divinity and History with a Ph.D. from Manchester University. Desmond studied at London University and Harvard and has higher degrees in paleotology and history of science, and a Ph.D. for his work on “Victorian evolution.” He is currently at the University College London. I had no idea that making the statement “life (had)originated only once” would create such a firestorm at the Cafe.
I finally had a chance to go back and re-read the passage where this quote from memory came from and the context of the statement from Darwin’s diary. Here’s the relevant passage on pages 230 to 231:
“The blitz of his (Darwin’s) thoughts continued as he squared up to extinction (of species) in his notebook. He kept recycling Qwen’s idea that the complexity of a species was inversely related to its lifespan. He sketched an ‘irregularly branched’ tree to convey the geneological history of animals and plants. If life was like a huge old oak, growing through the ages, the fossils were the ‘terminal buds of dying,’ their life-force decayed. The trunk symbolized the ancient common ancestor, the stock from which all animals sprang. And the single trunk must have had a single origin. Darwin realized that life’s initial spontaneous appearance from inorganic matter on the earth must have been a one-off affair, buried in the dim, distant past. Living molecules cannot be emerging constantly, everywhere, or millions of unrelated trees of life would be springing up, making the whole image excessively complicated. The origin of life was a once-only event, lost somewhere in pre-Silerian times (a primordial time when higher plants evolved).
Life had originated only once, then ramified through history an endless growth, terminal buds dying as others appeared. No revitalizing was necessary, no creative re-energizing.”