On The Origin

This is an archival repost from the old blog.

Like many science bloggers, it is my intention to blog about evolution and/or Darwin every day this month. One thing that I will be blogging is The Origin Of Species. It will hard work: fifteen chapters of Victorian prose to get through, and for each a search for something novel to say. After all, John Whitfield is already doing a better job of blogging The Origin than I could ever do, so I will have to settle with finding overlooked quirky details of interest.

This post, then, serves as a contents page for my Origin posts, plus a few comments on the forewords to my edition — 6th ed, Dent, 1972, with a foreword by L. Harrison Matthews, FRS.

Foreword by L. Harrison Matthews

If you’re already overwhelmed by the Darwin worship, Matthews’s foreword is the thing for you. Matthews points out that, despite The Origin‘s great impact both on biologists and the religious, it doesn’t really contain any notable facts that were not already known and published. Of the two great ideas, descent with modification, and natural selection, the former had long been the subject of speculation in biology, while the latter had already been announced by Darwin and Wallace, and perhaps even some other neglected and unread authors before them. Of the evidence for evolution and natural selection, much was common knowledge, indeed, the acknowledgments are bloated with the correspondents who had collected and published the evidence — of course, it was Darwin who had worked out what it was all evidence of.

Perhaps creationist ad hominins have made us too sensitive to comments about Darwin’s achievements, but Matthews’s words, written in 1971, seem almost like an attack — downplaying the importance of The Origin rather than emphasising its importance, like we would expect. I’m sure that’s not how he meant them to sound. Rather, he is trying to emphasise that the purpose of the book is not to introduce evolution and natural selection as new ideas, but to explain, argue, and demonstrate them beyond doubt, both to the naturalist and the layman. The Origin is pop-sci.

So if The Origin contained nothing new, why did cause a stir, and attract the attention of religious fundamentalists, when it was already known that the universe is old, all life is related, and it that it came to be by descent with modification? Matthews suggests that it is Huxley’s, how should I put it, “fault”? Matthews himself doesn’t take that accusing tone, though he does describe Huxley as “aggressive” and “enthusiastic”, spreading “energetic propaganda”. He quotes Huxley as saying that evolution “has proved itself to be a more adequate expression of the universal order of things than any of the schemes which have been accepted by the credulity and welcomed by the superstition of seventy generations of men.” This theory sounds rather familiar: when the religious are anti-science, blame the atheists for their militancy.

It would be nice if I could leave Matthews’s comments there, but I can’t just pass by these unfortunate words of his, crying out for a quote mine. “The theory is so plausible that most biologists accept it as though it were a proven fact, although their conviction rests on circumstantial evidence; it forms a satisfactory faith on which to base our interpretation of nature.” The general sentiment is a not an entirely unreasonable reflection of how science works. But the choice of words could hardly have been worse.

Darwin’s forewords

In addition to the modern foreword, Darwin himself wrote an introduction with acknowledgments, and a “historical sketch”. The details of these get a little tedious, but there are two interesting things to note about them. One is just how damn modest Darwin is, attributing most of his achievements to others — I read the historical sketch shortly after listening to Craig Venter on the radio, and the contrast is fantastic. The second thing to note is that Darwin was a great collaborator. He may be the sole author of the book, but there are half a dozen friends that he had bounced his ideas off for decades; and many dozens of correspondents who had collected data for the book. By modern standards of “authorship”, the book could easily have had an author list as long as any major genome sequencing effort. Darwin didn’t just keep to himself in his country house; he was networking with the world’s scientists from his desk.

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