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

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!


~ by badandfierce on November 28, 2011.

One Response to “Read Darwin With Me Part III: Some more of chapter 1”

  1. Oooh here via your comment on NSWATM.

    Didn’t know about real macro evolution being a thing. Awesome!

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