Friday, December 30, 2011

Darwins danish inspiration

Until earlier this year, I didn't know that a danish scientist actually participated a lot in the creation of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. I became aware only when I listened to a very interesting radio program about scientific development through time.

It seems at first, there were these bishops who honestly tried to contribute to the scientific pool of knowledge. They were trying to put an age on the earth, and based their theory on the number of generations in the Old Testament. On this basis they believed that they were able to estimate the earth's creation to have happened 4004 years BC.

It was a nice try - the error was of course that their starting point was completely wrong, as the Bible is not exactly scientific record material. 

It wasn't until much later that more serious bids on the earth's age came about, and today we know quite precisely (within one million years :D) that the earth is 4,567,000.000 years old. That is quite a bit, but his bishop Usher was onto something - - it was a number starting with "4"! 

The really fun part of the program, however, was the story of Nicolas Steno - or Niels Steensen, as he was called in Danish. He was from Copenhagen, and he was born in 1638. Steno wanted to be a scientist, so he studied medicine, to be a doctor. It turned out not to be quite what he had imagined - a little too much "barber" and not enough science. 

So Steno swapped to anatomy, where he actually made a really good name for himself - among other things by noting that the heart is a muscle. He became recognized enough that he toured Europe, and on his way he revised the contemporary view of how the brain works. 

At some point an Italian duke - one of the Medici - noticed him. He sent Steno a shark's head to Steno, so he could study the shark's teeth, that were oddly similar to little rocks that were found in the mountains - and by this, Steno's road to the science of geology had started. 

Steno began to wonder why fossils of sea creatures that were found far from the nearest coast, and it led him to the conclusion that the earth was not just a static thing, standing as it were created by god, but that it is undertaking constant change. 

By this, he was skirting a dangerous edge - at that time the priests of the Inquisition had a sharp lookout for scientists challenging what was written in their sacred books. 

But through diplomacy and probably also because he was a sincere Catholic, he succeeded to avoid a sudden loss of his head. 

Steno published several scientific writings during the course of his career, and actually his methods were to be the foundation of modern geology. Charles Lyell, who published Pricipia (Principles of Geology) actually wrote in his introduction that his theories rested on Steno's principles. And Charles Lyell happened to be one of Darwin's major inspirations, as well as friend and mentor. 

The fact that Steno is not better known today, is first and foremost that he was not an Englishman. His religiosity made him an outcast - in Denmark because he had converted to Catholicism, and further south because he originally was Lutheran. 

The man did not let his religious background stand in the way of his science, however, for he believed that when science and the Bible did not match, it was because the Bible was interpreted incorrectly:) - a relatively healthy starting point if you ask me. 

Some people actually claim that his contributions to modern science was on a par with Newton - and that it is quite unfair that his legacy is not greater. 

Regardless, I think it's beyond cool that we in Denmark have a scientist on record, who helped to form an important basis for Darwin's theory of evolution - albeit in a roundabout way:)

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