Reading: Charles Darwin

  • The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, edited with an introduction by J. W. Burrow (25 Jun 2009)

My family read this together when I was a kid and we were all creationists, and the only thing that stuck with me was the comical image of a bear swimming around with its mouth open catching insects. At that time I took the truth of Mormonism (as interpreted by my father, for whom creationism is something of a hobby) for granted and didn’t really give it a fair hearing. Actually, I didn’t give it any kind of hearing in the sense of engaging its ideas at any deeper level than, “Well, we all know that’s wrong.” I was unsympathetic without managing to be actually critical.

I’ve since come back to Darwin’s theory and found it compelling, but until now I had approached it only through modern popularizations, especially those of Richard Dawkins (an author who was recommended to me by my father, of all people). This is my first time rereading Darwin himself. Here are a few brief thoughts:

  • Darwin’s not a bad prose stylist. He overuses a few phrases (a lot of “light” is “thrown” on a lot of things by Darwin’s theory, and he always tells us so in those particular words), and the sometimes archaic technical terms call for frequent use of the glossary (apparently amphibians used to be called “batrachians”; who knew?), but overall the writing is clear and even elegant.
  • Given the way histories of evolution tend to focus on the contrast between the two men’s theories, Darwin turns out to have been much more of a Lamarckian than I would have expected. Many times throughout the book he grants the possibility of acquired characteristics being directly inherited, or learned behaviors being passed down as instincts. Of course he had the considerable handicap of not knowing anything at all about genes. Knowing about genes changes everything.
  • I like Darwin’s empirical spirit. Rather than just speculating, for example, that seeds might have been carried across the sea by birds, he carried out experiments to test the ability of various seeds to germinate after being immersed in salt water, ingested by a heron, etc. He didn’t take anything for granted. He also came up with some clever ways to test his theory which I wouldn’t have thought of myself, such as seeing whether species belonging to larger genera are more variable than those from smaller ones. This attention to detail and knack for making things testable — not the general idea of evolution by natural selection — is what set Darwin apart from all the evolutionary conjecturists who preceded him.
  • It’s true about the barnacles! They turn up again and again, though usually in disguise as “sessile cirripedes.” He knew an awful lot about the little beasties.

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