Read Darwin With Me Part III: Some more of chapter 1

•November 28, 2011 • 1 Comment

Darwin was a lot more of a botanist than I. And more of a geologist, a taxonomist, and a master of all (scientific) trades in general. I really wish “Naturalist” still counted as a job description. But the plant talk dried up after a bit. I’m a bit more conversant in his critter-oriented arguments, I freely admit.

Here Mr. Darwin wrestles with all kinds of questions that follow us today about the variations found in domestic species. It was apparently believed by Victorian scientists as a matter of course that domestic cows who escaped and went feral would soon be indistinguishable from wild cows (or whatever, but I like cows), and there’s so much to unpack right there… Of course, it’s true in a superficial sense, in that you’d have a good chance of breeding with the wild population and that cows in harsher conditions would be subjected to the same forces of natural selection that led to the state of their ancestors. It would certainly look that way, and a lot of agricultural accepted doctrine went along that way. And still does. “Sure looks like a wild cow. Let’s go drink.”

But there’s a whole world opened up here. So many observations packed into this one book that would be whole fields of evolution and genetics in later years. I think I chose the right treasure trove to go exploring in.

In an undergrad class on macroevolution* we learned about what my professor called “the Nazi Superdeer.” Yeah, I kind of loved that class. Anyway, the scientist (whose name I can’t find just now, damn) in charge raised red deer on their ideal diet and with ample space and found that they grew to be huge compared to their wild cousins. Also it was Germany at roughly the right time and… You try and not call them the Nazi Superdeer. I dare you. On a related note, speaking of cows, the underfed medieval ones with limited pasture were tiny compared to their later descendants and can now be seen as miniature cattle as even ranchers catch on to the fact that resource conservation is good. And as Mr. Darwin points out herein, cabbages shrink back down to their spindly little selves rather than elaborate cultivars when left alone.

Genes get turned on and off and the environment feeds back into physiology and neo-Lamarkianism and… Squee! So much cool stuff in the world because Darwin had a cool idea. Yes, someone would have worked it out. Several someones did before and one after. Darwin just wrote it up really pretty and sicced his friends on the world and had an awesome beard. Credit where credit’s due.

Also, Darwin didn’t think dogs were uniformly descended from one ancestor. I did not know that. Cool. We shall see why presently, apparently. It wasn’t like that question was settled at all before genetic testing was viable, according to a spiffy Nova I saw the other day. I do love incorrect theories that existed for good reasons. I’m like a soccer hooligan, but for data.

*Note to any confused Creationists or just the curious: Macroevolution is actually a thing, if a tad nonspecific. It doesn’t mean what the Ken Hams of the world think it does. Mostly it refers to overarching patterns one can find in evolutionary histories. The changes in skull morphology between related organisms exhibiting a major size difference, hox genes, eye evolution… A lot of stuff falls under this heading. It was a great class!


Read Darwin with me part II: First few pages of chapter 1

•May 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(It’s deucedly hard to cite passages when I fully expect readers to be following in any number of printings or web pages. Damn. I’m covering material from page 349 to 351 in my edition, if that’s helpful. Also, if I had to stop and talk about what I was reading after three pages, some of which I already touched on last post, I should have made progress about ten years from now, I think.)

He’s a phrase you don’t hear often. “…owing to the mysterious laws of the correlation of growth.” The first chapter of Origins begins by providing a good handful of examples of the way descendents vary from their ancestors and others of their own generation. Not to prove that it happens. He’s still talking about domesticated taxa, after all. He didn’t have to convince anyone of the mere fact that a farm duck is built a bit differently from its wild type antecedent. What Darwin’s clarifying here is that the variation happens as a result of reproduction. He covers the fact that plants raised under essentially identical physical conditions can come out quite differently, for instance.

My favorite thing about this project thus far is the insight into what was believed in Darwin’s day, or at least what was seriously postulated and debated. As confessed, I love the history of science. I like giving the minds that came before me credit and context. I like the drama and debates, the illumination cast upon the human angle, the grounding in a culture that’s not mine. I like the occasional soap opera that springs up. Those are much more entertaining in the past. And since it’s real life, it’s not held up to the standards that fiction would be. Where but in the history of science could you get the vitriolic dueling personalities of the New Synthesis, the startling melodrama that is Baron Franz Nopsca von Felsoe-Szilvas (look him up), the infuriating trials of Rosalind Franklin, the invocation of “divine favor” in an attempt to explain the extraordinary skills of Mary Anning (yes, look her up, too).

So let’s look at what Darwin was reacting to with his intricate observations to the effect that variation between organisms happens through reproduction and is fixed by some internal mechanism not yet identified. Jean-Baptiste Lamark, well before Darwin, had the rather famous idea that animals changed in response to the environment during their lifetimes and passed those changes down to their offspring. (Current finds suggest he may sort of have been right sometimes, if for the wrong reasons, but I’ll leave that convoluted discussion for another time.) That idea has been around in various forms since Classical Greece at least, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to our esteemed author, hit a few such conceptual notes himself. Charles Darwin later developed his own idea of pangenesis, an attempt to explain results that didn’t make much sense without knowledge of DNA. Altogether, the inheritance of acquired characteristics seems to have been a very appealing idea, and before one knew anything about genes, I can see why it seemed a very prescient, logical thing to assume.

With our gloriously 20/20 hindsight, it’s interesting to see Darwin grappling with what any biology student could tell you is quite ordinary in light of inheritance. The “mysterious laws” that so caught my attention above came of observation of the way apparently unrelated characteristics pair up in offspring. He notes some truly fascinating, if everyday correlations. Blue-eyed cats are deaf: whimsical!

I just really like that Darwin said whimsical. That may just be me.

He’s got lots more observations that make perfect sense now. Domesticated animals have floppy ears. That’s standard neoteny. (Fun fact. The Wikipedia page for neoteny links to cuteness. Makes sense in context, but hell, I didn’t know there was a page for cuteness. It’s a weird article, too.) Long legged dogs have long heads. Darwin mentions the old observation that coat color and temperament are correlated, which last I looked was supported by exactly zero data, though I may be wrong. He was but mortal, after all. There are a lot of zubtle just-so stories here, but I still think the collected observations are fascinating.

Read Darwin With Me Part I: Introducution and a bit of chapter 1

•May 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Well, you gotta start an enterprise like this off right. I’d usually kick off with a cup of tea, but it’s hot today, so I’ll put that on ice and go ahead and get comfy. I’ll be reading out of a nice edition I found on remainder, Darwin: The Indelible Stamp, put together with some essays by James D. Watson.

Hmm, my stuffed menagerie is awfully vertebrate-centric, and overrepresents mammals quite a bit.

They’re good essays for a basic historical context, and being as much of a history of science nerd as I am a history of earth nerd, I do endorse that. And while Watson is by all accounts kind of a jerk, he’s certainly not bad at writing. The essays are brief and pretty basic, though. I like having a nice, heavy paper thing in my hands, and it’s a very handsome collection, but it’s far from necessary. Go ahead and read the full text online and you won’t lose anything.

I started off with the introduction that appeared with the first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. I often skip introductions, which I suppose is a bad habit. It’s left over from all the times I’ve picked up classic works of fiction and read an intro that gleefully spoiled all the plot points, I think. But the introduction here is worth reading. Partly just for context. Darwin explains his own thought process and it’s full of polite, gentlemanly shout-outs to Lyell and Hooker and Wallace as well as a brief rundown of how the book came to be.

And how does the great man describe the book in question? “This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect.” The popular image of Darwin as paralyzingly shy is erroneous, I believe, but he was about the most careful human being to ever live. He had a book written that pretty much summed up his ideas in 1844. Origin saw the light in 1859. My copy comes to about two-hundred pages and represents decades of exhaustive work, of gathering every possible bit of evidence a brilliant naturalist writing letters to all the other brilliant naturalists could come up with over the course of the better part of his life.

And then, of course, Alfred Russel Wallace came up with pretty much the same idea in the interim. Awkward for everyone, though by all accounts the two were always delightfully cool about it, giving each other all due credit.

I do like to imagine those years of work, though. All those bees and orchids and barnacles, exhaustive investigation of every angle. Darwin was hardcore, of course. (Can I get that on a shirt?) But he also came from a day when knowing everything about everything was just what you did if your hobby was science.

Yes, I mean hobby. You had to join the science club at school if you wanted to go about studying it. Science wasn’t a dignified and scholarly thing for educated people to do the way Math and Language and such were. It’s such a deeply foreign idea. Gentlemen were quite free to enjoy science and it was respectable the way only pursuits that required free time and monetary resources could be, but you couldn’t go to school for a scientific discipline. I don’t even have an analogy, and I get on with analogies like an aquarium octopus with fish in a nearby, uncovered tank.

Yes, I eat them in the dead of night to the intense confusion of everyone around me. What do you do with analogies?

Anyway, it wasn’t like the scientific method was only just being invented. Nicolas Steno grasped some of the significance of fossils in the 1600’s. William Smith started putting out maps in 1799. But you went to school for philosophy or theology, not to be a scientist. Try and get your head around that!

Tangent aside, Darwin’s context was a world where you just went and got buried in your projects, and then you and your friends would pass letters and books around various Societies. Learning the name of every rock formation and fish bone was practically the point. I do think it’s better to learn the way we do now. Learn a framework of basics for every subject, apply critical thinking, get used to processing information on that scale, and then dive into whatever your specialty is, but there’s something deeply appealing about the old school. A favorite class I took was Vertebrate Paleontology. Your mission? Learn the names of everything, as well as time, place, and relationship to all the other things. Hardcore.

Back to Darwin’s insufficient, imperfect little work. The rest of the introduction is quite what you’d expect. This is my idea. This is what the chapters contain and why. This is why it’s important. And that’s the point that deserves exploration.

Why? Because Darwin was facing a world where no one knew where life and its diversity came from. That’s possibly the most violently obvious thing I’ve ever written, but bear with me. Darwin wasn’t the first to come up with evolution or a mechanism for evolution or even his mechanism, but none of those ideas had caught on. Sure, “God did it” was the answer a lot of people fell back on, but this was before the weird, modern Creationism movement that’s all about denying evidence. Within or without the idea of God making everything, scientists at the time wanted to know how the world was put together. People haven’t changed so much that inquiry wasn’t a driving force. No one could agree, and while many of the surviving ideas are pretty silly by our standards, they represented a perfectly good stab at explaining the world with the information at hand. Darwin in one fell swoop popularized understanding of evolution and devised its most prominent mechanism.

So how he’d go about it? Quite logically. I’ll only touch on the beginning of chapter one here, entitled “Variation Under Domestication.” Subtitled, uh…

Causes of Variability — Effects of Habit — Correlation of Growth — Inheritance — Character of Domestic Varieties — Difficulty of distinguishing between Varieties and Species — Origin of Domestic Varieties from one or more Species — Domestic pigeons, their Differences and Origin — Principle of Selection anciently followed, its Effects — Methodical and Unconscious Selection — Unknown Origin of our Domestic Productions — Circumstances favourable to Man’s power of Selection

It was awfully nice of him to write a study guide for us. Thorough man. Thorough, thorough, thorough man.

Anyway, he found a sensible way to start for perfectly simple reasons. People who don’t think biology is the coolest thing predating sliced bread are still perfectly well aware of domestic breeds of animals and plants. I can walk through my house and point to examples. My pets are a cute little pair of domesticated rats. They’re very odd colors compared to their wild cousins and their behavior is very different, though that’s likely to be more nurture than nature. I’m having an eggplant for dinner. It’s an absurd looking thing. In size and shape and color it hardly resembles its ancestor or any of its many other cultivars, and outside of Asia, all that variation happened in the last five-hundred years. I could argue that I’m evidence of domestication myself, being an adult mammal who can digest milk without any trouble as I am. What a weirdo.

And given that Darwin had no more knowledge of genetics than anyone would have for the better part of a century and microbiology was only just kicking off at the time, speedy, directed change as is seen in domestication was the easiest way to observe descent with modification. We laugh at Lamarkian evolution now. Of course offspring can’t inherit traits the parents acquire during their lifetimes. But that was far from cut and dried for scientists in Darwin’s day. But if you check out domestication, you can take note that cows that have been dehorned don’t give birth to hornless cows. Human civilization makes a great laboratory, turns out.

As to what’s actually written as opposed to why, Darwin begins his little book by discussing variability and its persistence. Wheat is super old, Darwin might have said if he were a lot less lucid and detailed a writer than he was, and we can still get new kinds of wheat. There is some capability within all these variant plants and animals for continuing to vary. What’s more, he narrows the cause of variability to reproduction. As stated, that wasn’t established in Darwin’s day. Something that seems so self-evident today, and there he goes changing the freakin’ world by pointing it out.

Darwin. Hardcore.

I have… A plan!

•May 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I realized last night that I have never read The Origin of Species in its entirety, just excerpts. this annoys me. I know I’ve tried. I had a book called The Darwin Reader when… I probably still own it. Must be at my parents’ house somewhere. Either way, I tried to read that cover to cover when I was in eighth grade, but I wasn’t really up to it. Darwin was a very good, lucid writer for his day, but he was still a Victorian gentleman naturalist, and he was a bit dense for me at the time. Compounded, I think, by the fact that I didn’t have much background in geology and natural history at the time. Oh, a lot for a thirteen year old, probably, but that’s hardly a lot in the grand scheme of things. And certainly not up to the standards of old school natural history, where knowing all the facts about everything was just to be expected in a good practitioner. And then I never picked it up again. One should always spend time with the primary literature. I’ve read many of his admirers, I’ve read papers from the minds behind the New Synthesis, I’ve read biographies and attended lectures, but I’ve never gone straight through the book. I am a dumbhead in this respect.

So I’m gonna fix this. Really, I owe it to the man. I am, apparently, kind of a born biologist. My parents love stories about me freaking out some nice volunteer docent at the zoo as a tiny pixie child of two or three, demanding to know why the nocturnal owls weren’t asleep, or about the way they could make me behave on hikes by telling me that only Marty Stouffer was allowed to go off the trails. (Marty Stouffer’s Wild America was the best show in the world, as far as I was concerned. It’s now available on DVD, but I hesitate to buy it, for fear of demolishing my childhood love with my current cynicism.) So I come by my natural history fixation honestly. But my first memoy of really getting into the science dates from a book my mother read me. I’m guessing I was four or five, based on the attendent memories. I believe the book was We Were There with Charles Darwin on H.M.S. Beagle. Should see if Mom remembers. It was, in retrospect, a rather silly account. Darwin in the book had already settled on a complete theory of evolution by natural selection and was portrayed pretty much as the slightly daft old beardy guy he is in the popular imagination rather than the young gentleman he was at the time. But it hooked me. Mom explained evolution to me with the old saw about the finches. By third grade I was choosing to do book reports on the great man himself, based on a half decayed old biography sitting around in the library.

That was my first tangling with creationists, too, come to think. I finished my book report with an observation I thought was very clever. (Please excuse me. I was eight.) “And if it weren’t for Darwin, there might be people who think there were poodles in the ice age!” See? Poodles. Mammoths. I thought it was hilarious! And then my teacher just gave me this glare. To be fair to her, at least she admitted it was her own belief. I later had a teacher who claimed that the whole edifice of Christianity and godliness and all that was good in the world depended on no evolution.

Not true, by the way, if you’re Catholic. Which I haven’t been for years, but Catholics are perfectly entitled to accept evolution as fact. I kind of trolled that teacher the rest of the year, working references to evolution into everything. Which was hard in a social studies class, by the way. But hey, prety cool of me to be trollin’ offline. Just shy of a live-action Rickroll, that.

To return to my point (I’m not even sure where I left it), I’m a huge Darwin fangirl. Yes, I’m well aware that he was wrong about lots of things, that he didn’t originate the observation of evolution or even the theory of natural selection. He did come to it independently, but so had a couple guys before and one guy after. He’s still pretty awesome. So I’ve decided to start with Origin of Species and go from there. I’ll be blogging what I take away from each section as I go, whether it be awesome insight I hadn’t considered before, turgid Victorian prose, famous or infamous passages in context, and so on. I invite everyone who cares (so, uh, hi mom?) to come on my journey with me and dissect the Darwin for the modern dork.


•February 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

When I was in high school our favorite place for dinner was called Leona’s. It was a chain that did a rather good imitation of the real thing. The lights were dim, with little candles in sparkly glass things on the tables. I guess that’s standard for restaurants for plenty of reasons. Hides any dirt, creates a sense of romance, means everything looks very stately when it’s served. The food was mostly unremarkable, if plentiful. You got a whole bunch of bread and a big salad and by the time your pasta and some sauce came, you were mostly full. There was a single item on the menu, though, that kept us coming back and coming back. It was called “Extraordinary Junk Food” and it was simply a quarter-pound of mozzarella breaded and fried. It was absolutely dreadful for you.

All the colors were quiet and earthy. I don’t remember if the walls were that glaring burnt-orange color you get in Mediterranean restaurants, but it’s a good guess that they were. I remember a few big signs designed to look vaguely old-timey that proclaimed Mama Leona’s various personal virtues, and it’s a good guess that there were a lot of black-and-white photos, vintage alcohol advertisements, and garish paintings on the walls. That’s just how you decorate an Italian restaurant of middling quality in Chicago, and everywhere else, from what I can tell.

There was a smoky room attached with a half-dozen pool tables. None of us could play pool and there were little plaques on each one informing everyone that one was to be twenty-one to play. We found this amusing. The room always reeked of smoke (which didn’t bother me one bit at that age, when I lived with my chain-smoking mother full time) and generally the other tables were all taken up by middle-aged guys. There was a juke box in the corner, and occasionally we’d set it to play whatever amused us at the time. I’ve sort of lost track of what things I liked in high school as opposed to before or after, so imagine generic nineties alternarock for the most part. The guys trying to actually play pool laughed at us.

I have a lot of photographic evidence of the place. I took a photography class in high school. Scrolling through, I’ve found that the pool hall was all artsy and weirdly lit with a brick wall and weird acts of abstract randomness all over the place and also that I wasn’t the best at holding a camera. (And there I got distracted for a bit flipping through my teenaged attempts at photography.)

There’s a similar place exactly next door to me now. Roberto’s is authentically a small, independent Italian food place, but without much of a supporting population, while Leona’s was a not-really-independent place surrounded on all sides by people who make for the Italian eatery experience.  One is geographically misplaced, the other mildly disingenuous. The end result is the same, though Roberto’s has an issue where it can’t decide if its ambiance is “grandma’s kitchen” or “self-aware bar.” It tries to be both. Kinda odd in the end.

There’s another sort of Italian joint (actually, there’s also the actually expensive kind, but I don’t go there, so meh). The kind where it’s not artistically dim, it’s dark. Not deliberately dark, just “who cares about light?” dark. The kind of lighting that would seem about right a being from a dimension of closets and slightly-malfunctioning light bulbs. The air is practically gaseous gravy. You don’t want to ask questions about the food. You don’t really want to look at it. You just take what the nice man give you. And by “nice man” I mean strange, scowly person coated in grease (though garbed in a surprisingly white and tidy chef’s coat) who is almost always male and is Hispanic as often as Italian, but the two cuisines work well together, so it’s not as though that detracts from the experience. You will order Italian beef if you have any sense, by the way. Yes, you want it dipped, and yes, you want giardniera, and no I don’t know how you’re supposed to eat the sopping mess but you’ll figure it out and you’ll thank me. And have some fries if you’re really hungry. No harm.

…So the purpose in writing this was to figure out what sort of Italian restaurant I wanted to be the set for my current story, and it’s pretty clear which was the more fun to write about. Decision made!

Regarding trains

•January 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’ve gotten to be fond of train travel. There’s a significant difference on my usual line between the Boston>Chicago and the Chicago>Boston in enjoyability. Something about starting at night on the way out makes the whole thing much more pleasant. So, I’ve found, does traveling alone and in a mostly empty car, which may not be very good for the environment or the train company, but which is very nice for me. Excepting a really loud family that boarded around four in the morning, I enjoyed the trip.

There were books! I finished another Tanya Huff book. I’m starting to find that I love her, now that I’ve gotten away from her more teenaged vampire angst stories, rather than just finding her a diversion. She is not great literature, not a wonderful wordsmith, but she’s a damned good storyteller. I care about all her characters and if the plots are a bit hackneyed, well, there are only so many stories in the world. The writing is pleasant and clever. She has lots of protagonists who are divergent in one or more ways from white-male-heterosexual-Christian. It’s good times for everyone. The one I just read, The Firestone, does a rather clever thing where the main cast are a Fighter (dissipated but kind-hearted prince with a sword), a Rogue (traumatized, twitchy thief), and a Wizard (rebellious princess, but, y’know, a good one), and the whole thing feels like a really good dungeon crawl with really good players.

I then dipped into Catherine Jinks’s Evil Genius. Am not enamored so far. It feels like the whole thing is trying really hard to be Artemis Fowl, and there have been some really icky moments. The whole premise of the book is that most perpetrators of the ickiness are evil, but the narration has been completely on their side, too. I haven’t gotten that far, though. We’ll see.

I also started (on audiobook) Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge. I’ve barely started, so I have little to say so far about the plot or characters except that they seem to be wiggling their way into existing pretty well. The language is the really fun part of this so far. It’s word soup! Delicious word soup!

…That was a tangent. Didn’t really mean to go all book review on this entry. The big observation? Trains make me write. I got most of a chapter of the novel done on the way out, didn’t write much at all while I was home, and then spent this afternoon writing a short story about fairies and some other stuff. Pretty complete story. Obviously needs tweaking (I was thinking of edits in the bus station), but it’s a rough draft. About five-thousand words in an afternoon. Go me. I need to take the train more often.

Sometimes I remember that I have a blog.

•January 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Kinda. Anyways, I’m trying to think of something clever to say. I’ve settled on talking about beer.

I was talking to my younger sister today, the high school and not the first-grader, passing on some fragments of wisdom wrapped in enough sarcasm to make sure she’ll pay attention. Dad walked by and began to make fun of the beer (which… he had just bought) and he and I wound up making fun of the taste, which dad described as “earwax filtered through cardboard.” It was Schlitz, for the curious.

Bridie observed that, in her opinion, all beer tastes like earwax filtered through cardboard, so we explained acquired tastes and the desire to be plastered pleasantly and responsibly buzzed common in us grown-ups.  Then we began describing the tastes of various beers back and forth. I brought out my old standard for my favorite ordinary beer, Guinness extra stout. “Tar and the tears of Irish orphans.” I recalled a weird beer I’d had at a bar with some friends, a Russian stout called something like Two Brothers on the West Wind. “Thick on the tongue as whipped cream and black as black can be.”

This, I quickly discovered, is a really fun game. I’ve been playing with beer for a while now. Come up with some other fun ones.

Sam Adams: Tangy summer rain and boredom.

Miller light: Credulity, lightly carbonated.

Blue Moon: White and cold, a grow-light in liquid form.

Guinness: Rust, acid, and bubbles.

Make your own! But I think I like this a lot. I think I may make a mental exercise of this, pick a category and describe various examples in the most colorful language you can. I’ll have to mull over future categories. Dog breeds, quirky hobbies, grunge bands, cable news, mattresses, distantly glimpsed birds, college majors… Some of these will be snarky and pithy, obviously, and some of them would be purely a way to play with language and imagery, but I like my new game.