10 May 2011

Book Review: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I have a particular bug-bear with isms and ists. These are often named after people with the ism or the ist being added on to the end to indicate a particular worldview represented by that individual. But how often do they bear relation to the work of the person themselves? In the past, I have sought to battle my own ignorance by reading Plato when I was sick of hearing about Platonism or of something being Platonic. I have also done similar with Euclid and Newton. So here we come to Darwin, the giant of biology and perhaps the father of Darwinism; or perhaps not.

The introduction of the book states that is important to distinguish the work of the man from the philosophical interpretations that have followed from it. Unfortunately, the rest of the introduction by Jeff Wallace (no relation to Alfred Wallace, as far as I know) shows that he has fallen prey to the mistake that he warns about himself in that he makes various claims about evolution which go beyond the biological evidence available.

So, moving onto the main text: Darwin begins with the mundane, to say the least. The subject of his opening chapter is pigeons, which he talks about at some length and which, to be honest, is pretty uninteresting to those of us who are not pigeon-fanciers. From here, where he looks at variation under domestication, he goes on to look at variation in the wider world, where man’s influence is not felt quite so directly.

Throughout the book, Darwin stresses the difficulty in trying to classify whether two animals (or plants) are variations within the same species or are different species altogether. His point, really, is that there is no sharp definition. Though it is clear that a horse is not of the same species as a mouse, there are grey areas elsewhere in the natural world; and examples of these are given as evidence to back up the point.

Having started with this preamble, Darwin moves onto the heart of the book, which is his theory of natural selection (note, the word ‘evolution’ is never used and the word ‘evolved’ is only the last word in the concluding chapter). It seems hard to come to this afresh, with it being such a well-known phenomenon that has been built upon over the years; so to put yourself in the shoes (glasses?) of the first readers for whom this was a new concept is a challenge for the modern-day reader.

From here, Darwin then spends the rest of the book looking at potential problems with his theory as well as outlining the evidence in favour of it. It was his honest approach at pointing out his own weaknesses that has garnered him so much high esteem in the scientific world, possibly more so than for the theory of natural selection itself. This, of course, was a two-edged sword, as it has provided ammunition for creationists and adherents of the intelligent design movement. The self-effacing lacunas in his theory take the form of falsification; in other words, Darwin is saying that if just one of many pillars on which his theory is founded would be proved false, then his whole theory would collapse. This book is completely lacking in the intolerant rhetoric and hysterical bleating found in the writings of so many of Darwin’s later adherents, which is why I was pleased to have read that Darwin himself was clearly not the model upon which the likes of Dawkins has based himself.

Darwin gives his reasoning for why he thinks these potential problems are not as great as they might seem at first and why natural selection is true. This latter part is done with several references to the notion of special creation as there are certain instances and observations which are well-explained by Darwin’s theory but which are unexplained (at least without some twisted explanation only concocted with hindsight) by the alternative.

The book is not without its flaws, however. On the one hand, Darwin is attempting to form, and give evidence for, a new scientific framework of understanding. At the same time, though, he is attempting to reach as wide an audience as possible. What this leaves us with is a mixture, where some parts of the book go into too much detail for the ordinary reader, making it turgid and really quite boring, while at other times skimming over detail and leaving the narrative sounding very much like an ancestor of Kipling’s Just-So stories.

This is somewhat remedied by the final chapter, where Darwin does finally break free from the constraints of evidence and reason, allowing himself a few flourishes of rhetoric, where he acknowledges that his book is only an introduction and that much more work is needed on tracing the family trees of species and tracing back to an original progenitor.

There are two elephants in the room with regards to the book. One is the origin of humans. The only time this is mentioned is right at the end of the book as an avenue for future research, though the topic is not broached in the main body of the text. The other is the absence of genetics. The book was written before genetics really became a major part of mainstream biology, and so numerous references are made to how unknown are the methods of transmission of characteristics and variations.

It can hardly be doubted how important this book is to biologists, though it is not a comprehensive review of the field. For that reason, I would not class it in the same category of “great” books such as Euclid’s Elements or Newton’s Principia. As far as understanding the history of the development of biology in the modern era, this is an essential book to read, and important for anyone wanting to sift the wheat from the chaff in terms of what Darwinism truly means.

My own conclusion from reading it is that Darwin would be aghast at the arrogance adopted by his successors in the advocacy of his theory, and the extent to which notions which he originated within the bounds of observable evidence have been stretched beyond their limit. I am thinking, here, particularly of Nietzsche’s idea of the superman and how that led to Aryanism and the Holocaust. While these ideas may have been seeded in Darwin’s work, I don’t doubt that Darwin himself would have regarded them as aberrant forms.

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