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

(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.

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~ by badandfierce on May 30, 2011.

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