Field of Science

Origin of Species Book Club: Historical Sketch & Introduction

Alright apologies to those waiting for updates on OoS, but real life is a fuck-all-the-time-and-not-in-a-good-way (fattaniagw). Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on the Historical Sketch and Introduction. Please add any thoughts you have including disagreements in the comments and we can continue a discussion there.

Historical Sketch: This is really damn important for all of us involved in the culture war. I think by-and-large people think the concept of evolution started with Charles Darwin. But this is not true. First of all, we have to realize the problem Darwin was trying to address and that is clearly laid out in the title of his book Origin of Species. Where do species come from? That is the question he was dealing with. As I look in my fairly simple backyard, I can see grass, a white pine, lilac bush, gray squirrels, rabbits, juncoes, and a cardinal. (Often there are blue jays, roses, daffodils, chickadees, chipmunks, etc). Where did these different organisms come from? how did they come about? why do they stay as discrete entities and we don't see chipbits or cardinadees or even squirrelpines? Basically, Darwin is asking that age old question, what the fuck is going on?

This is the current problem, because when we think about it from the grandiose perspective of 'what the fuck is going on?' we step on the toes of religion. This was not Darwin's purpose or goal, but it is a ramification of the fact that Darwin is even asking this question. What's important is to realize that Darwin was not the only one asking these questions. In fact, these questions have been asked since humans gained the ability to ask questions. Although Darwin mentions Aristotle in his historical perspective, he really focuses on scientists writing in the 100 years prior to Origin of Species. The point he makes over and over is that many of the observations that he will use throughout the Origin were made by earlier scientists. Basically 34 previous scientists had established the facts that variation exists within a species and that species indeed change over time. The question that had not been adequately addressed was why had species changed. Essentially no viable mechanism had been proposed that explained all the data available. Admittedly Lamarck made an impressive stab at this problem but it didn't make sense in many cases nor was it supported by available data. At this point in time, the Christian idea of creation as defined by Genesis chapter 1 (not chapter 2) held sway. Although it had been clearly incorrect for several hundred years, an explanatory hypothesis had not yet been put forward.

Favorite passage (emphasis mine and I appreciate the recent musings of Cornelius Hunter for making this so amusing.):
This address was delivered after the papers by Mr. Wallace and myself on the Origin of Species, presently to be referred to, had been read before the Linnean Society. When the first edition of this work was published, I was so completely deceived, as were many others, by such expressions as “the continuous operation of creative power,” that I included Professor Owen with other pal├Žontologists as being firmly convinced of the immutability of species; but it appears (‘Anat. of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 796) that this was on my part a preposterous error. In the last edition of this work I inferred, and the inference still seems to me perfectly just, from a passage beginning with the words “no doubt the type-form,” &c. (Ibid., vol. i. p. xxxv.), that Professor Owen admitted that natural selection may have done something in the formation of a new species; but this it appears (Ibid., vol. iii. p. 798) is inaccurate and without evidence. I also gave some extracts from a correspondence between Professor Owen and the Editor of the ‘London Review,’ from which it appeared manifest to the Editor as well as to myself, that Professor Owen claimed to have promulgated the theory of natural selection before I had done so; and I expressed my surprise and satisfaction at this announcement; but as far as it is possible to understand certain recently published passages (Ibid., vol. iii. p. 798) I have either partially or wholly again fallen into error. It is consolatory to me that others find Professor Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do. As far as the mere enunciation of the principle of natural selection is concerned, it is quite immaterial whether or not Professor Owen preceded me, for both of us, as shown is this historical sketch, were long ago preceded by Dr. Wells and Mr. Matthews.
Introduction: This is basically what we now call an abstract for a scientific paper. Although at 5.5 pages for a 600+ page book seems sedate. Here, Darwin starts with his voyage on the Beagle and lays out the basic question being addressed and how he is going to go about answering it. I am not going to pick out a favorite passage here, because the entire thing is an eloquent and clear description of the wonderful things to come.

OK, book club readers, please toss in a response even if it's 'ditto' (better not be though, Im not Rush fucking Limbaugh). The pressure of knowing others are involved will help keep this book near the top of my personal to do list.

Next up: Chapter 1: Variation Under Domestication (Let's shoot for the end of the month, I have a grant due soon.)


Mike Haubrich said...

I thought it brilliant of him to approach the problem first from the standpoint of domesticated animals, and in hindsight it seems obvious. I wonder how many naturalists upon reading this, smacked their palms to their foreheads and thought "why didn't I think of that!?"

I had not been familiar that Owen claimed primacy on this. From what I understand, he scoffed at Darwin's natural selection and advanced his own theory. I have never attempted to read much of Owen, but I understand that he was not objecting as a creationist so much as he had other ideas. And the way that he treated Gideon Mantell in order to gain primacy on dinosaur fossil description, it doesn't surprise me that he also scoffed at Darwin.

If I were to make a movie on 19th century biological discoveries, Owen would be a subtle villain.

TheBrummell said...

My edition follows (mostly) the Second edition, the early-1860, rushed-to-print-to-satisfy-unexpected-demand edition with a different introduction. Which version is yours?

I didn't see any mention of Owen in the Introduction I read, nor Dinosauria or really much about fossils at all. I'm assuming the fossils will show up in later chapters. In the Introduction I read, Darwin talks a bit about Wallace and a few other people, but not much paleontology.

The Lorax said...

Im reading the 6th edition so there are definitely differences. I know Darwin backed off some claims made in earlier editions, but there is the additional chapter on responses to potential problems with the ToE. It will be interesting to see how your impressions differ from mine.