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clifhostetler

Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Origin of Species - Charles Darwin My book group selected this book for discussion probably because of the historic impact it has had on the field of science. However, I found it to be very worthy of respect from a literary viewpoint. Charles Darwin's writing comes across as a methodical thinker and patient explainer to many recalcitrant readers who are determined not to believe a word he says. He had me convinced after only a couple dozen pages, but he kept doing what seemed to me to be piling on observation after observation, explanation after explanation, until after a while I felt like crying out, "Enough already, I believe!"

Frankly, I was impressed by the breadth of knowledge about the natural world already accumulated by the middle of the 19th century as demonstrated by this book. There are obvious things poor old Darwin didn't know about, one of them being the laws of genealogy discovered by Gregor Johann Mendel. Mendel was a contemporary of Darwin, and I have heard that a published copy of Mendel's study was on Darwin's book shelves but it hadn't been opened or read. Of course Darwin wasn't the only person who ignored Mendel. Mendel's work wasn't appreciated for it contribution to understanding inherited traits until after his death. Meanwhile Darwin is writing this book giving many observations regarding the variability of crossings of various plants and animals, but doesn't understand why.

Also, Darwin was plagued with physicists of the time who calculated that earth couldn't be as old as needed for Darwin's theory of natural selection to accomplish all the required changes. The physicists were basing their calculations of the rate cooling of the core of the earth. Of course they were wrong; What they didn't know about was radioactive decay which gives off heat they weren't making allowances for. It turns out the earth is even older than Darwin would have guessed.

And of course the really big advance of science that Darwin didn't know about was the DNA double helix. Darwin insists that life forms need to be classed according to genealogy, and he speculates that in the future scientists will be able to classify life forms more accurately as more knowledge is obtained about them. Darwin would be amazed to know how precisely genealogy can be determined these days. For example, it can be determined that humans are more closely related to fungi than to photosynthetic plants.

I listened to the audio version of this book. This is an example of a book that is much easier to listen to than to read because of all the big Latin words used in describing species. Having the words read aloud made them fit into the context of the sentence much better than if I were trying to read (and probably skip over) those unfamiliar words.

There were six editions of "Origin of Species" in Darwin's life time. It could be argued that the 1859 edition is the second best version of this book with the 1860 British edition being slightly better in that it contains some insignificant, but non-substantive, corrections. The editions of 1861, 1866, 1869, and 1872 are all inferior. In them Darwin made changes and expansions in an effort to meet the objections that arose during those times. The modifications expanded the book and clouded the argument. Since most of the objections that were raised would be regarded as silly today, Darwin's arguments against them are of interest for social history, but not for Darwin's theory. I think that most published copies today are based on the 1872 edition. If you have an earlier edition you will find that it is shorter and, as indicated above, is probably better.

The following quotation is from the sixth edition and not in the earlier editions. It is from a section of the book on instincts and follows a couple paragraphs discussing the habit of some birds to lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. Mr. Darwin has just sighted some of the observations of the nesting habits of a type of cowbird [Molothrus Bonariensis] written by a naturalist colleague.
"Mr. Hudson is a strong disbeliever in evolution, but he appears to have been much struck by the imperfect instincts of the Molothrus Bonariensis that he quotes my words and asks, 'must we consider these habits not as an especially endowed or created instincts but as small consequences of one general law, namely transitions?' "
I take from the above that Darwin was enjoying the irony of a naturalist from the creationist camp finding it difficult to attribute to God the endowment of the slothful nest making habits to the cowbird. Since the behavior is repugnant it must have been caused by that old nasty evolution stuff (i.e. the work of the devil).