Saturday, February 25, 2006

On the Origin of Species

I am happy to report that I have finished it at last. Almost exactly three years to the day since I began, I have finished reading The Origin of Species.
The paperback book itself is tired, the covers and corners tattered and taped and the pages yellowed from being carried around in my handbag. (I always like to have a book on hand, to be pulled out at those moments when there is nothing else going on and nothing important to think about -- usually in cafes or on buses.) Some of the pages bear the telltale stains of solitary cappuccinos, and I have been using a Tusker beer bottle label (local brew from Bruce's bar on Hideaway Island, Vanuatu) as a bookmark.
I started reading Origin in Vanuatu while we were on holiday, three years ago. I’d taken it along as a back-up book if I finished the one I really wanted to read. Funnily enough, I can’t remember what the other book was! (I have a feeling it was Carl Sagan’s Contact, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as the Fun Policeman promised I would.)
You may ask why I wanted to wade through such a venerable tome as Origin. The answer is that it is one of the most important and influential books ever written: the back cover blurb says, ‘next to the Bible’. I have read the Bible, and many other books that appear on various lists of influential works of fiction and non-fiction, so I felt that I ought to round out my education by reading this one.
I began reading Origin well before I became aware of the current controversy about Intelligent Design. In fact, it was almost the other way around: I became aware of the controversy because I was reading Origin. Although modern biologists counter the accusations of ID by denying that they are Darwinists, pointing out that our understanding of natural selection and evolution has advanced in leaps and bounds and, in some cases, diverged from Darwin’s version of the theory, they do owe (and own) allegiance to him and his bold vision: just as western civilisation cannot escape the fact that we owe a great deal of our culture and current beliefs to the Christian bible, whether we believe it is divinely inspired or not.
I was pleased to discover that, in many ways, Darwin foreshadowed developments in science during the 20th century:

We shall never, probably, disentangle the inextricable web of the affinities between members of any one class; but when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress. (Chapter XIV)

Take a bow, Crick, Watson and Rosalind Franklin.

With respect to existing forms, we should remember that we have no right to expect (excepting in rare cases) to discover directly connecting links between them, but only between each and some extinct and supplanted form. (Chapter XV)

Thomas Huxley, you go, guy. Wilberforce has got nothing.

With respect to the absence of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian formation, I can recur only to the hypothesis given in the tenth chapter; namely, that though our continents and oceans have endured for an enormous period in nearly their present relative positions, we have no reason to assume that this has always been the case…. (Chapter XV)

Thus was plate tectonics, a discovery of the mid 20th century, foreshadowed in the mid 19th century.

With respect to the lapse of time not having been sufficient since our planet was consolidated for the assumed amount of organic change… I can only say, firstly, that we do not know at what rate species change as measured by years, and secondly, that many philosophers are not as yet willing to admit that we know enough of the constitution of the universe and of the interior of our globe to speculate with safety on its past duration. (Chapter XV)

Hubble and Hawking meet Humanism. (That old chestnut, the “insufficient time” argument, was raised at the Darwin Day meeting I attended. Unfortunately I hadn’t read this chapter then.)

It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation”, “unity of design” &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only re-state a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory…. But I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. (Chapter XV)

There’s still nothing new under the sun, and Darwin has already answered his 21st century ID-believing critics.

Reading The Origin of Species, despite the fact that many would call the science it contains obsolete in the wake of 20th century scientific progress, gave me some important insights. Firstly, I became aware of the scope of Darwin’s mind: his careful study and experimentation, his inquisitive nature and his prodigious imagination. Secondly, I became aware of the leaps and bounds that science has made in the past 200 years. Thirdly, I became aware just how much Darwin’s work does underpin commonly held beliefs today, as well as scientific endeavours.
Do I recommend that you read this book? Not necessarily. Though it is well-written, it is not an absolute pleasure to read (hence the fact that it took me three years to get through it in dribs and drabs). But if you feel that you ought to read it to better understand the history of human ideas, then it is certainly worth digging up a copy and ploughing through it.

1 comment:

Kevin Rosero said...

Many kudos for plowing through it and distilling some important points. Whenever Darwin is quoted, I have the same impression of his mind as you. And the quote about attaching more weight to the difficulties in a theory rather than to the many facts it does explain is a keeper.