Friday, February 13, 2009

On Re-reading the Origin of Species

It's been a great pleasure to read the Origin of Species in preparation for my talk tonight and for our book club meeting last Monday. I had forgotten how clever Darwin was and how he carefully weighs his arguments for evolution.

I had also fallen prey to several myths about the book. For example, I didn't realize that Origin of Species is all about speciation and the difference between species and varieties.

The editors of Current Biology asked several scientists to re-read Origin of Species in honor of Darwin's 200th birthday. The results are published on the journal's website [(Re)Reading The Origin].

I've already mentioned Jerry Coyne's defense of the term "Darwinism" [Jerry Coyne on Darwinism. The contribution from Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard is excellent—she points out one of Dawin's most important arguments and reminds us that it has been largely forgotten because it now seems so obvious.

Many of the scientists comment on the wonderful prose in Origin and on Darwin's delightful style of writing. I agree with them. Mark Ptashne doesn't. He couldn't read the book when he was younger and even today he had to read a condensed version because the original is too difficult! ("Who has the patience to dig through the convoluted sentences, extracting the buried nuggets?")1

At my book club meeting, and in many discussions with non-scientific friends, the dominant impression is that Darwin is a very humble man who almost apologizes for having a good idea. That's not the Darwin I see. Simon Conway Morris isn't fooled either ....

But what suddenly became clear is that this is a book haunted by the ghost of William Paley the grandfather of creationist thinking and exponent of seemingly irrefutable arguments for organic design. The Origin is Darwin's riposte. Its metaphorical power depends on suspense and a scattering of clues, but significantly Paley himself is mentioned only once. And cleverly not in the context of his ideas on organic design but in an oblique dig at the question of natural evil. First and foremost, The Origin is an exorcism of the doctrine of special creation, and conducted by one of the most skilled exorcists science has ever seen. The brief crescendo in the last chapter is preceded by repeated and sudden flashes of disdain, a quick insertion of the knife before the narrative calmly continues in its ostensibly more objective purpose of piling up the evidence. Darwin knew his enemy intimately, but was far too astute to engage in a head-on clash.

Darwin was right, and he knew it. His expressions of doubt are largely rhetorical and how seamless—at least from a distance—is the edifice upon which he constructs his theory. Yet, it is equally intriguing how he conceals his intellect: the carefully marshalled facts are allowed to speak for themselves and the implications introduced with restraint and circumspection—a sotto voce naturalist. Darwin never doubted his abilities.
Why are so many people not able to see this? I think it's because they aren't familiar with the typical English style of understatement and well-disguised sarcasm.

Darwin's contemporaries weren't fooled. You should read Brian Switek's posting on Darwin's Heartache to see how Darwin's friends responded to the book in November 1859. His old Cambridge mentor, Adam Sedgwick, was not happy.

Andrew Berry and Hopi Hoekstra didn't comment on their own reading of Origin of Species; instead they listed the comments of their students in the course evaluations! The good news is that some students actually liked the book.

My favorite review is by Peter Lawrence who, I must confess, is one of my favorite scientists. Peter noticed something that I also noticed; namely, that Darwin's style of argument is very much a lost art. Here's how Peter puts it ...
I had only dipped into this wonderful book in my student days. But what a revelation for a somewhat jaded scientist to read it now! It is not only the brilliance, farsighted and original nature of the ideas, there is the sheer diversity of knowledge, the pervading presence of thought, of simple direct experiments, of debate, of argument, the consideration of other views and the style. In writing and reading scientific articles nowadays, we become imprisoned, constrained in what is considered appropriate and our vocabulary is reduced. Also our sentences are stifled by fashion and by journals that kill invention and independence with their strict word limits and their 'house style.' Just one example: punctuation. Darwin used everything, even the long dash and the exclamation mark. In my scientific writing I have been frequently told that these are not allowed—OK for great literature, but banned from scientific usage. I don't know why, but dulling down our scientific writing is not in our best interest. By contrast, in Darwin's time, Victorian fashion encouraged a flowery style as well as intellectual freedom; he took full advantage of both. He could write explorative and educative prose. He could spend many pages explaining narrow but important distinctions between different viewpoints and, time and again, one can see the outcome of careful reading and deep reflection. Our data-dominated publications, pared down to fit them into limited space, would be much more comprehensible if there were more argument, more explanation and more justification; indeed, if we reflected more, I think we could make big reductions in our published pages by making sure they carry and convey at least one message of note.

1. I suspect he hasn't read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory , either.


  1. 1. I suspect he hasn't read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory , either.
    You say that as if it's a bad thing. ;)

  2. There is another book, The Moral Animal, that is quite an interesting examination of ethics from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. Even though I had read OoTS beforehand, it covered quite a bit of new ground (to me) with game-theoretic examinations of evolutionary pressures, interleaved with the story of Darwin's life.

    Interestingly, the author makes the point that Darwin's humble nature was both authentic, but also necessary given the social codes of the time. Looking back on it, his literary expressions of humility might be construed today as an affectation.

  3. Interesting review--I'm going to put Origin in my to-read list.