No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Night Thoughts on Reading Darwin

It's true, I cannae sleep. And though these are not the Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist, these are the night thoughts of me, as I work my way through Darwin's On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Of course, I'm familiar with evolution in the interested layman's sense, but I was curious to see what Darwin's original ideas were like. What evidences and arguments he brought to bear in a world that would take nearly a century to discover what DNA was for. In many ways, genetics is the death knell of the élan vital... the idea that the difference between living things and nonliving things was some sort of ineffable magic. Genetics demonstrated that it all comes down to a code built up of four different kinds of tinkertoys. You all saw GATTACA, so I won't belabor the point. But Darwin did not have that advantage. All he had was pigeon fanciers and finches. So I was curious to see how he approached the problem.
As you may know, Darwin undertook the Voyage of the Beagle. But it was another 20 years before he set down his ideas about evolution in book form. And then, it was only because wacky Alfred Russell Wallace was beating him to the punch.
The thing I find most interesting is that it is clear that Chuck wasn't wasting those 20 years. He was thinking about the problem intensely. I've read any number of popsci books on evolution. Yet still I find Darwin provides greater insight into his Dangerous Idea. I'm still only a third of the way through ( I confess, I whipped through both Starship Troopers and an Agatha Christie in the meanwhile) but I will just offer one quote:

On the ordinary view of each species having been independently created, why should that part of the structure, which differs from the same part in other independently-created species of the same genus, be more variable than those parts which are closely alike in the several species? I do not see that any explanation can be given. But on the view that species are only strongly marked and fixed varieties, we might expect often to find them still continuning to vary in those parts of their structure which have varied within a moderately recent period, and which have thus come to differ.

I find this interesting for several reasons. Number one, Darwin specifically (and not just in this passage) addresses the objections offered by special creation. This is sort of a 'Duh', I confess, since special creation was the only real competing theory at the time, but it is interesting that Darwin is just as useful a critic of creationism or ID as today's scientists. Second, Darwin has clearly though really deeply into the consequences of his central idea. This is astonishingly clear throughout; Darwin probably spent more time considering the variability in the number of tarsi in Engidae beetles (in comparison to other species of its genus) than I have spent considering evolution at all. Third, even in Darwin's day, he was setting forth predictions that can be tested that might falsify the theory. Evolution is often ridiculed as a telling of tautological "Just So" stories. The most fittest survive, and those that survive are obviously the fittest. But even Darwin's work from 1859 puts the lie to that argument. Darwin saw numerous practical consequences that resulted from his hypothesis. And to the best of his ability at the time, he compared the actual data to his predictions. It's almost astonishing to see him truthfully admit that he (and everyone else on the planet) was almost entirely ignorant of the laws that governed inheritance. Despite ignorance of the method, the fact of inheritance combined with his other observations, was enough to create a fully-fledged, testable theory.

Now I won't lie and say that Origin is a gripping read, but I think it does stand as a monumental work, not least because Darwin spent such a long time considering the matter. Imagine (physicists among you, anyway) that Einstein had not written his three miraculous papers of 1905. Indeed, imagine he didn't publish a goddamn thing until 1925, when he suddenly unleashed both the special and general theories of relativity and the explanation of the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion and what would happen if you dropped a cat with a piece of buttered bread attached to its back. 'Origin' is like that. A broadside that wipes away all that came before it. Like Einstein, the revolution wouldn't be complete in an hour, but the evolution revolution was all over in the scientific community by the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925. How sad is it that 80 years later we still have to replay the Scopes Trial from time to time? The Anti-Einsteinians have all but vanished a century after relativity was formulated. Why does anti-evolutionism remain strong 150 years later? Well, the answer is somewhat obvious, but no less regrettable.
Tags: book, science

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