Later On

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Darwin’s masterpiece revisited

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Very interesting article in the New Scientist. The intro:

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the most influential piece of popular science writing ever published. A few years ago, New Scientist listed reading On The Origin of Species as one of the 100 things to do before you die. To do so is to experience the extraordinary sensation of having a scientific genius enter your mind to guide you through his most important theory. Now we have asked the geneticist, evolutionary thinker and author Steve Jones to summarise and update the book for the 21st century – and, we hope, to inspire readers to experience Darwin’s astounding, world-changing writing first-hand

UNIQUE among scientific theories, evolutionary biology finds its roots in a popular book by a single author. The grey-bearded genius presented a new and radical view of existence: that life has changed over time and space, in part through a simple process called natural selection.

Charles Darwin called his work "one long argument". To a 21st-century reader it seems lengthy indeed, with only a single illustration to enliven its 150,000 words. But Darwin was a clear thinker and the book is an impressive piece of advocacy, moving from the familiar – how animals on farms have changed – to the less so, embryos and instinct included.

As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite… I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse and misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you… And as to the curs which will bark and yelp – you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often and justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead – I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness. — Thomas Henry Huxley

Darwin also shows how what might seem to be problems for his argument, such as the uncanny perfection of complex structures like the eye, are in fact part of the solution, and how apparent weaknesses in his case – the incomplete nature of the fossil record included – can easily be explained. Now and again he was wrong, as when, unaware of Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics, he claimed that inheritance is based on the mixing of bloods, but mostly he was right.

Darwin described the process of evolution as "descent with modification". Today that might be rephrased as "genetics plus time". Offspring resemble their parents because they inherit DNA from them, but the copying process is not precise. Every round has errors, or mutations, and although they are individually rare – with perhaps one or two mutations in working genes each generation in humans – they can soon build up vast diversity. A copy of a copy is always imperfect, and for that reason alone, evolution is inevitable.

Darwin had a second insight. He saw that if a certain variant allows its carriers to survive, to mate and to pass on their heritage more successfully than others, in later generations it will spread. Such inherited differences in the chances of reproduction allow creatures to adapt to changing circumstances and can, in time, give rise to new forms of life. Natural selection, as he termed it, is a factory for making almost impossible things.

The publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science. — Francis Galton

The Origin was written in something of a rush. When Darwin discovered that Alfred Russel Wallace had hit upon the very idea he had been cultivating since soon after his return from the Beagle voyage, he condensed and refined his plan for a much longer book and set out to bring his theory to a wide audience. The book is far shorter than that first scheme, but as a result it is much clearer – which is, no doubt, why it made such an immediate impact. Darwin apologised again and again for leaving so much out and spent much of the rest of his life filling in the gaps.

If The Origin was a hasty letter to its readers, this account is no more than a postcard. But I hope that in just a fraction the length of its archetype it sketches out how Darwin might make his case today, a century-and-a-half on.

Read the whole article.

Written by Leisureguy

13 November 2009 at 3:41 pm

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