More Recent Comments

Friday, July 11, 2008

Was Charles Darwin a Good Science Writer?

Olivia Judson is a research fellow at Imperial College in London (UK). She studies evolution. Judson is a former pupil of W.D. Hamilton. She is also the daughter of Horace Freeland Judson.1

Judson writes a weekly article for the New York Times website. This week she tackles the heretical question of whether Charles Darwin was a good science writer [An Original Confession]. Here's a treaser ...
It always happens the same way. A glance around the room to make sure no one else is listening. A clearing of the throat. A lowering of the voice to a conspiratorial tone. Then, the confession.

“I’ve never read ‘On the Origin of Species.’ I tried, but I thought it was boring.”

Thus, a number of eminent scientists — biologists all — have spoken. Or rather, whispered.

1. Author of The Eighth Day of Creation, the definitive history of the early days of molecular biology.

[Hat Tip:]


  1. What's "heretical" about criticising a piece of science writing? The Origin Of Species is not a holy book that has to be protected from rational criticism.

    Please leave talk of "heresy" to the religious and their narrow minds - it's a loaded concept that has no place in science.

  2. I am not a scientist, but I have read the Origin of Species. On the whole I would say that Darwin was indeed a good science writer. I agree with Olivia Judson's comments that his prose is at times,"...clear, lyrical and glorious" and at other times "...long-winded, turgid and opaque". Considering the place of the book in history, I would consider it a must-read for any educated person - despite the stodgy bits.

  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDFriday, July 11, 2008 8:57:00 AM

    I have read it, and I thought it was boring. Things that we take for granted today because we have detailed molecular mechanisms could not be taken for granted in Darwin's time, so instead he had to make his point by supplying huge lists of examples.

    O. Judson is author of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex

  4. Honestly, I have a hard time reading anything from the Victorian-era (Capital 'L' literature, all characters no story and all that). However, Origin is much more interesting when you are interested in the subject and have a firm grasp of biology. Then it becomes amazing to realize how much work Darwin did and how much information he compiled. However, if one is reading the 1872 edition of the book, you've really only gotta read the first 300 pages or so. The rest in Mayr's words is 'one long argument'.

  5. Mayr was quoting Darwin, so it's actually Darwin's own words. BTW, Mayr's book is pretty informative. Is Mayr a good science writer?

  6. Content like Darwin's, written by Hemingway . . . now, - wouldn't that have been something??

  7. Darwin was making a scientific case, he was not a "science writer". He was not looking for a pulitzer prize or amazon rankings.
    I guess many people find most research papers "boring", that I find fascinating.

    Darwin was indeed a great, sophisticated thinker, that tackled most of the great topics of evolutionary biology (despite his natural insistence on enthronizing his own natural selection, a stance which actually costed him much confusion)

  8. actually most "science writers" are more darwinian than darwin... they lack his sophistication.

  9. Looked at from the knowing 21st century, probably not.

    In 1859 the first printing sold out immediately. It was a both popular science bestseller and a book that decisively changed science in a manner I suspect contemporary science writers would suffocate much loved aunts in their beds to achieve.

    Yes, some of the Origin is turgid. Some, like the final paragraphs of the last chapter are poetry. To see Darwin writing without the caution of middle age and the need to bury critics with evidence, read The Voyage of the Beagle. Great enthusiastic travel, adventure and science writing.

  10. In chapter one of Finding Darwin's God, Ken Miller writes about his first reading of The Origin of Species as a teenager, and calls it "the single most boring book of an otherwise memorable summer." He says he only kept reading it because a) numerous people, including his father, told him it was a dangerous book and b) he was trying to impress a young woman with his depth.

  11. I first read the Origin when I was about 13 or 14. That was one of the first books I ever read in English. The first several pages, all those pigeons, were not very exciting, but the rest of the book was fun.

    The Voyage is a wonderful read, but later, when I was deep into this stuff, I even found Descent fun to read....

  12. Olivia Judson is also a science writer, she wrote Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation.

  13. From a physicist view, it can look like some obsession to read original works. In this view those texts are both culturally dependent (i.e. hard or impossible to translate into modern terminology and thinking) and obsolete (i.e. the theory, if it remains, is so modified that it is easier to read contemporary experts).

    I haven't read Newton's Principia, and have in fact been warned off.

    OTOH one can heed historians who can sometimes explain the subtext. For example, when Newton choose to have an "absolute space" as a basis for his mechanics. It has slowly dawned on me that it doesn't seem to suggest that he meant an absolute as opposed to relative space. (I.e. absolute coordinates as opposed to galilean invariance.)

    I've seen suggestions that he was in fact trying to impose the new idea of an idealized space ("absolute space") populated by objects, as opposed to referring to objects and their happenstance positions. Different subtext.

  14. I have taught a Freshman seminar using the Origin as the text (1 chapter a week fills out the entire semester). I supplement it with Steve Jones' Darwin's Ghost for a more contemporary look. Many of my students resist at first, and enrollment drops about the second week, but those who stick it out are fascinated.

    So after five or so readings, I am continually struck by how insightful Darwin was. For example, on p. 262 of the first edition, he discusses heredity in social insects and points out that this doesn't fit with Lamarckism, since reproduction is done by the queen. Her conditions don't change, while those of the workers do, but the latter don't reproduce. It would have saved a lot of trouble over the first half of the 20th century had people taken that single passage to heart.

    I usually don't like to read scientific "classics" (Mendel's paper in German is a particularly horrific memory) but this is an exception.

    Darwin couldn't get into Dawkins' book because he hasn't written anything in the last hundred years, being dead and all. But I suspect he would have been there were it not for that.

    Frank Schmidt

  15. "It would have saved a lot of trouble over the first half of the 20th century had people taken that single passage to heart"

    A hard request considering that Darwin has many other passages supporting lamarckism, specially in his later work.

    Given the current evidence, it turns out darwin was right in not dismissing the inheritance of acquired traits. It does not happen in every situation (lamarck did not defend that, either), but it can indeed happen an we can understand how, too.

    yet in "pop science" culture, which is veeery slow catching up, it is just a matter of repeating the mantra: "Lamarckism is worthless". seems like a day does not pass with someone dissing on lamrackism. WTF?