I have… A plan!

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.

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~ by badandfierce on May 28, 2011.

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