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.