Over 150 years ago, Charles Darwin shook the world with his publications concerning the natural selection of plant and animal species. Though he had precursors who suggested that the creationist model, and consequently the 6000 year old Earth was incorrect, it wasn’t until his work that people began to take it seriously. Here is a list of ten of the most influential evolutionary scientists and thinkers.
1. Charles Darwin
The original evolutionary scientist whose two ground-breaking books On the Origin of Species and On the Descent of Man created a storm when published in 1859. Contemporary thought still centred on the notion of special creation by a supreme creator with no clear idea about the age of the Earth. Darwin’s theory, as thorough as it was, shook all corners of the biological sciences. He is still attacked by creationists today and his views and words are often misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented
2. Richard Dawkins
Perhaps the most famous evolutionary biologist in the world today, Richard Dawkins has had a phenomenal career in research, education and public awareness of science. He is presently an emeritus Professor of New College, Oxford. Dawkins shot to public attention in the 1970s with his ground-breaking work The Selfish Gene. It was so popular a recent 25th Anniversary edition was released. He is also an outspoken atheist and Vice President of the British Humanist Association. His most famous book though is The God Delusion released in 2006
3. Rosalind Franklin
Few people have made as much of an enormous impact on research in DNA as Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s personal contribution was to the X-ray diffraction images of DNA which eventually led to discovery of the Double Helix ‘ opening up genetic research forever. Francis Crick and James Watson were credited as the fathers of genetic research; Crick made it clear that their work would not have been possible without the valuable contribution that Franklin made. She died of ovarian cancer aged 38.
4. PZ Myers
Another prominent face of science and public education, Myers is an associate Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota Morris. His public work includes the founder of the popular science blog Pharyngula which discusses science stories in the news, criticisms of creationism and a Friday Cephalopod. In 2006, his blog was reported by journal Nature as the most popular and influential science blog on the web. He created a storm in 2009 when he took a large group of his students to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky.
5. Steve Jones
At public lectures, Jones has been noted to state that he is ‘the biologist they call when Richard Dawkins isn’t available’. He may make the comment in jest, but Jones is a celebrated and well-known biologist in his own right. He held the prestigious position of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. He has been awarded the Michael Faraday prize for his contribution to science and public engagement. Notable works include Language of the Genes and Y: The Descent of Men.
6. Lynn Margulis
The origin of life from single celled to multi celled organisms, and whether plants, fungi and animals all share a common ancestor was a hypothesis with little actual supporting evidence until Margulis began her work into Protists (a form of eukaryote). Her seminal work The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells was initially rejected by 15 different journals (mostly because it held to theories of symbiosis that had fallen out of fashion) but was eventually published by The Journal of Theoretical Biology and became an important paper in the study of multi-celled life
7. Francis Collins
Collins is largely at loggerheads with the rest of the research community because of his insistence on the existence of a supreme creator. He believes that religion and science can overlap; he has been an outspoken critic of both Young Earth Creationism and of Intelligent Design though ‘ opting for ‘theistic evolution’, the generally accepted position of global churches. In his professional career, Collins discovered many disease genes and contributed much to the Human Genome Project and oversaw the final stages of research
8. Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould stands as a giant in the world of popular science writing. He was a palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and commentator on science history. He spent most of his career as a lecturer at Harvard. He was the first to term the phrase ‘punctuated equilibrium’, the idea that most evolutionary developments are signified by long periods of stability with rare occurrences of new species branching out. He came in for some criticism with the idea that religion and science were ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ ‘ that they occupied different realms and need never clash
9. Ernst Haeckel
One of Charles Darwin’s greatest supporters was this naturalist and artist. During his life he discovered and named thousands of new species, mapped the first genealogical tree linking all species (a remarkable achievement considering the limited information of his time). He is most famous for his highly detailed sketches of a wide range of animal and plant species under ‘Art Forms of Nature’. Haeckel was particularly notable for suggesting that all human ‘races’ had evolved from common ancestors who did not have speech whereas creationist thinking was that the human races were created separately.
10. Nicole King
Some of the most important discoveries are made with the smallest organisms on Earth. Though the biggest discoveries that make it into newspapers tend to centre on new organisms or ancestor species, Franklin has made and continues to make some ground-breaking discoveries on the evolutionary transition from single cell to multi-celled organisms. King identified choanoflagellates (colonial eukaryotes that are the closest living thing to all living animals) as the most important step in answering questions about the rise of multi-celled organisms. King is considered one of the world’s most important evolutionary biologists
It isn’t just through the big discoveries such as though above that names are made. Some like Nicole King whose work on the smallest living species can end up opening up a whole new world of science. Despite the media’s fascination with the really big stories, it is often in these small labs dealing with otherwise microscopic life forms where most of the big discoveries are made.