Tag Archives: origin of species

Darwin in plain English?

This is my contribution to the #upgoerfive meme in which we are challenged to use this text editor to ‘explain a complex topic using only the 1,000 most common English words’. In my case, I have tried to re-write the wonderful final paragraph of ‘On the Origin of Species’. (Apologies in advance to my fellow Brits for using the ugly z-version spelling of the word realise, but the American-English text editor was very insistent!)

It is interesting to think about all the animals and green things we see in world, and to realize that, although they seem so different from each other, and need each other to live, they have all been made by the same, fixed, easy steps acting all around us. These easy steps, taken in the largest sense, being growing and having babies; being like your parents (but not exactly like them); and being able to avoid dying for as long as possible. In this way, even animals with the biggest brains are made. This is a great way to look at life, with its several powers, having been first breathed into a few forms or into one; and it is great to realize that, while this world has carried on going around the sun following the same fixed, easy steps, from so small a beginning lots and lots of forms most beautiful and most full of wonder have been, and are, changing over time.

Thanks to Karen James, from whom I totally stole the opening sentence of this post (and the phrase green things), for alerting me to the #upgoerfive meme.

Hats off to Tegetmeier!

WB Tegetmeier

W.B. Tegetmeier (1816–1912).

Today marks the 196th anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite mini-heroes of science, W.B. Tegetmeier: a great example (along with Darwin) of how amateur scientists can make important contributions to our understanding of the natural world.

To celebrate, I have written this mini-article in his honour.

Whewell sets the right tone

There has been quite a lot of debate recently about the right tone to take when disagreeing with people misguided enough to deny evolution, or believe in pseudoscience or the supernatural. My own approach is to try to avoid engaging with them at all. I don't particularly want to be rude to such people, but I don't particularly want to be polite with them either. Life is too short to spend it arguing with people you are never going to agree with.

In these days of the 140-character tweet and the ten-posts-per-day blog, it's all too easy to get into a heated arguments with someone on the strength (or weakness) of a ill-considered online blurt. I've done it myself. Our modern means of communication encourage instant feedback, often to the detriment of thoughtful reflection.

Less so in Darwin's day. This from William Whewell in January, 1860:

My dear Mr Darwin

I have to thank you for a copy of your book on the 'Origin of Species'. You will easily believe that it has interested me very much, and probably you will not be surprized to be told that I cannot, yet at least, become a convert to your doctrines. But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent, which I have not now time for. I must therefore content myself with thanking you for your kindness.

believe me | Yours very truly | W Whewell

William Whewell

William Whewell (1794–1866)

This seems to me the right way to go about things. Whewell—a mathematician, historian and philosopher of science, who was also an Anglican priest and theologian—disagrees fundamentally with Darwin's revolutionary new theory, but is not prepared to dismiss it without more careful consideration.

I'm not sure how much careful consideration Whewell gave evolution by means of Natural Selection after his polite letter to Darwin. Not much, if their lack of subsequent correspondence is anything to go by. But at least Whewell had the decency to recognise that Darwin had provided a lot of food for thought: a position worthy of the gentleman who gave us the word scientist.

What do you mean, you've never read 'On the Origin of Species'?

Take a short trip as the lapwing flies 14 miles north-east of where I am writing these words, crossing Brontë Country, past Keighley, and over the legendary Ilkley Moor, then head back in time exactly 150 years to the day, and you might well chance upon Charles Darwin taking the waters at White Wells Bath House.

But, as we all know, 24th November, 1859 was no typical day in Darwin's quack water treatment. It was the day on which his most famous book was published. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life sold out on its first day, and has never been out of print since. It is a classic text. Arguably one of the most important books in the history of science. And, rather surprisingly, it is still remarkably accessible to the lay reader…

What do you mean, you've never read On the Origin of Species? Surely you jest! Really? You really haven't read On the Origin of Species? Trust me, it's not that hard. OK, so maybe it isn't exactly a page-turner, but we're talking about one of the great revolutionary books here—and it's written in plain English, for ordinary mortals like you and me. You certainly can't say that about Newton's Principia. In fact, I'm struggling to think of another revolutionary scientific text you can say that about.

Yes, Origin is dated in one or two places—and plain wrong in one or two more—but Darwin's great work has withstood the trials and tribulations of the last 150 years remarkably well. The gentle genius's long argument still hold true. More so than ever, in fact, as we now have 150 years of extra evidence to back it up.

So if you consider yourself a Darwin groupie, or simply well-read, yet you still haven't read the great man's most important work, why not make today's 150th anniversary of its publication the perfect excuse to start reading the damn thing?

You never know, you might just learn something.

Contemplating a tangled bank

Times: Enslaving the Amazon

… Charles Darwin's famous image of the "tangled bank" certainly owes its origin to his impressions of tropical forests

Certainly? I think not.

Charles Darwin was writing for an audience who, in almost all cases, had never seen, nor ever would see, a tropical forest. In his magnificent final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Darwin is inviting the reader to contemplate something very familiar to them: a tangled, British bank. That's why they should find their contemplation interesting: because his theory applies not just to tropical jungles and the African savannah; evolution is happening back home in Blighty, in her tangled banks and hedgerows.

Where's your patriotism, Times? I herewith cancel my subscription.

Erm... I think not

Tree of Life

Darwin's iconic notebook image.

One of the goodies I bought for myself at the big Darwin exhibition last week was a fridge magnet depicting Darwin's iconic tree of life image with the rather wonderful caption, I think.

It wasn't until I got the magnet home that I noticed there was a bit of a howler on the packaging, repeated on the Natural History Museum's website, which says:

The Tree of Life is the only illustration in Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. Darwin used it to show that all things living are related.

Well, not quite.

Although the only image in On the Origin of Species does indeed depict a tree of life, it bears very little resemblance to the one depicted on the fridge magnet, which is taken from one of Darwin's early notebooks on evolution. A facsimile of the notebook is on display at the exhibition (and just to the right).

Darwin puts pen to paper

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, on 20th July, 1858, while staying at The King's Head Hotel in Sandown on the Isle of Wight, Charles Darwin began an 'abstract' of his planned major work on evolution. The following day, he wrote to his cousin, William Darwin Fox:

I am now beginning to prepare an abstract of my Species Theory. By an odd coincidence, Mr Wallace in the Malay Archipelago sent to me an Essay containing my exact theory; & asking me to show it to Lyell. The latter & Hooker have taken on themselves to publish it in Linnean Journal, together some notes of mine written very many years ago; & both of them have urged me so strongly to publish a fuller abstract, that I have resolved to do it, & shall do nothing till completed: it will be published, probably, in Journal of Linn. Socy. & I shall have separate copies & will send you one.— It is impossible in abstract to do justice to subject.—

Darwin's abstract quickly grew in size. It was published the following year with the rather snappy title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

'Every body is interested in pigeons'

The history of science and engineering is littered with figures major, minor and mythical, who got their prognostications spectacularly wrong. Lord Kelvin, a brilliant physicist, is also famous for asserting that radio had no future, and for miscalculating the age of the earth. Isambard Kingdom Brunel insisted on a superior but non-standard broad gauge for his beloved Great Western Railway, which ultimately required a costly, posthumous downgrade. We snigger at the school teacher who told Albert Einstein that he would never amount to anything. We laugh patronisingly at the President of IBM who supposedly predicted a world market for maybe five computers. We never really believed the one about Mr Gorsky and the kid next door.

Many people also got (and continue to get) it spectacularly wrong about Charles Darwin. In 1859, the President of the Linnean Society, Thomas Bell, regretted that, "The year which has passed … has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear". This from the man who, in July of the unremarkable year in question (1858), had presided over the reading of Darwin and Wallace's legendary (and revolutionary) joint paper, in which the theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection was finally unleashed on an unsuspecting (and largely unimpressed) world.

But perhaps my favourite minor figure from the annals of science who got it wrong was the well-meaning first reviewer of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Whitwell Elwin.

Elwin was a clergyman, and a close associate of Darwin's publisher, John Murray, whom Murray consulted regarding most of his new publications. Murray sent a manuscript of Origin to Elwin for comment prior to publication. In a long letter to Murray, Elwin praised the style and breadth of Darwin's valuable work, but claimed that Darwin's lack of evidence "would do grievous injustice to his views". Instead of rushing into print with the full volume at this time, said Elwin, why not take up Sir Charles Lyell's earlier suggestion and write a shorter book about Darwin's observations on pigeons? He reasoned:

This appears to me to be an admirable suggestion. Even if the larger work were ready it would be the best mode of preparing the way for it. Every body is interested in pigeons. The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom & would soon be on every table. The public at large can better understand a question when it is narrowed to a single case of this kind than when the whole varied kingdom of nature is brought under discussion at the outset.

To be fair to Elwin, his advice was well-intentioned and carefully thought out. But it is amusing to think that, had it been followed, Darwin might have been reduced to writing a popular book about pigeons.

But, fortunately for science, Darwin was having none of that. Three days later, having been forwarded Elwin's comments, he wrote to Murray, politely but firmly:

It is my deliberate conviction that both Lyells & Mr Elwyns suggestions, (which differ to a certain extent) are impracticable. I have done my best. Others might, I have no doubt, done the job better, if they had my materials; but that is no help.— Nothing on earth can have been kinder than both Mr Elwyn & Sir C. Lyell have been.—

The subject was not discussed again, and On the Origin of Species went to print a few months later.

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See also: How about a nice little book on pigeons?

Recommended reading

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species: a biographyI've just finished reading Janet Browne's book Charles Darwin's Origin of Species: a biography. Apart from a couple of howlers with dates, it is a thoroughly good read. One passage I particularly enjoyed:

Darwin called this shorter book [On the Origin of Species] 'one long argument'. And what an argument it was. Few scientific texts have been so closely woven, so packed with factual information and studded with richly inventive metaphor. Darwin's literary technique has long been noted for its resemblance to Great Expectations or Middlemarch in the complexity of its interlacing themes and his ability to handle so many continuous threads at the same time. Hardly daring to hope that he might initiate a transformation in scientific thought, he nevertheless rose magnificently to the occasion. His voice was in turn dazzling, persuasive, friendly, humble and dark. His imagination soared beyond the confines of his house and garden, beyond his debilitating illnesses and the fragile health of his children. At his most determined, he questioned everything his contemporaries believed about living nature, calling forth a picture of origins completely shorn of the Garden of Eden and dispensing with the image of a heavenly clockmaker patiently constructing living beings to occupy the earth below. He abandoned what John Herschel devoutly called the 'mystery of mysteries' and replaced Paley's vision of perfect adaptation with imperfection and chance. Animals and plants should not be regarded as the product of a special design or special creation. 'I am fully convinced that species are not immutable,' he stated in the opening pages.

I think that summarises Darwin's masterpiece rather well.

The next time some idiot tries to tell you that On the Origin of Species is not very well written, why not refer them to the above passage?