Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Origin of Species - Charles Darwin

The Origin of Species - Charles Darwin

Authored By: Charles Darwin

This book has had a profound effect not just on science, but the culture at large. What I wouldn't read this book for is the science, or in an effort to either defend or refute the argument for evolution. The core of Darwin's argument certainly is still what was taught in my Catholic high school biology class (taught by a nun). In a nutshell, the theory is that given there are wide-ranging subtle Variations among organisms, the Malthusian Struggle for Existence causes by means of Natural Selection of the inheritable traits that are the best Adaptations to the environment the Origin of Species or as Darwin calls it, the "theory of descent with modification."

But, after all, this book is now over 150 years old. Science is about explaining natural phenomenon and correcting mistakes through observation, experimentation and falsification--not dogma--and so is always a moving target. I know that. But I still raised an eyebrow when in the first chapter of the book Darwin said he believed the "most frequent cause of variability" was caused by the experiences of the parents before conception--such as cows' udders being larger in countries where they're milked because the habit of milking by itself alters in the reproductive organs what is inherited by the next generation.

When Darwin first propounded his theory of evolution (a word never used in the book by the way) through natural selection, Mendel had yet to discover the basic principles of genetics in his experiments with peas and Watson and Crick had yet to unravel the structure of DNA. Nor was continental drift known and understood, so there were notable gaps in Darwin's reasoning that has since been filled. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the staunchest defenders and popularizers of evolution is famous within science particularly for where he differs from Darwin. Darwin thought changes in species were very gradual. Gould favors "punctuated equilibrium" where there are rapid changes followed by long periods of stability. That's why scientists today talk of the "theory of evolution," not of "Darwinism" as if a scientific principle is an unchanging creed and Origin of Species scripture.

So, the book is dated and filled with lots of details I'm sure are just plain wrong and might be onerous to unlearn. That does make me reluctant to give this book top marks despite its profound impact. Someone interested in modern evolutionary science would be better off picking up a copy of a book by Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan (although by now I suppose his very readable Dragons of Eden is dated) or Stephen Jay Gould. So, was there no value in reading On the Origin of Species? I wouldn't say that. It's surprisingly readable--or at least understandable. There are definitely dry passages that were a slog to get through, my eyes glazing over as Darwin gave example after exhaustive example to make his points.

However, I couldn't help but be impressed by the knowledge of nature shown by his wide-ranging examples from every continent from ants and bees and algae to pigeons to zebras. Given the way he cited various authorities and spoke about his own experiments, I definitely felt that here was a master generalist and enthusiast on nature. Moreover Darwin does have a gift for metaphor and illustrative examples. I was particularly taken by his explanation of "inter-crossing" and the function of sex in creating biological diversity.

I also was struck by how cautious and civil in tone Darwin is in his arguments, devoting an entire chapter on what he saw could be the flaws and holes in his theory--particularly the issues of transitions between species and intermediate forms. Bottom line? Arguably this specific book had as much influence on the literature and politics of the next century as Freud or Marx, so I think there is historical value in reading this, preferably in the first edition (which is what I read) that exploded upon the world in 1859.

Buy this book

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