Sunday, September 7, 2008

Darwin's Origin of Species

I just finished reading Darwin's, The Origin of Species. (I'm aware that this is not the full title of the original work, but it's the title of the modern printing which I have). I wanted to share my thoughts about it.

First of all, I need to say that this was a tough read. It's a long book, over 600 pages, and some sections are pretty dry. I thought I was going to give up during the long chapter on fertility and infertility, or at least skip ahead, but I resisted. Making things worse, Darwin was really long-winded, and didn't seem to like to use periods very much. There are some sentences which are so long that they take about 1/3 of a page, and very commonly a sentence might take 1/4 of a page.

As I came near the end of the book, I realised that most creationists probably have not read this book. Besides the fact that many of them are illiterate, it would be very hard to make it through the book if you completely disagreed with what he was saying, or even thought it was pure blasphemy. Only because I'm sympathetic to his ideas could I get through. So it shouldn't surprise anybody to understand that many creationists who talk about, or quote, the book have not read it.

That was the bad, but there are a lot of good things to say about it. The thing that is most obvious to the reader is that Charles Darwin was a very, very intelligent and knowledgeable man. Even if the knowledge of his time pales in comparison to what we know today, he was up-to-date on what was known. He was schooled in geology and biology, including knowledge of the anatomies of a ridiculous number of plants and animals of all kinds. He conducted many experiments in his own garden and lab. He also regularly corresponded with scientists all over the world, back in the days when all correspondence was written by hand and sent by mail. Keep in mind that they didn't have airmail, so this must have taken a lot of effort and patience. One wonders how he found the time to do it all.

Darwin not only lived before DNA was discovered, but Origin of Species was published 6 years before Gregor Mendel went public with the results of his now-famous pea experiments, which shone a huge spotlight on how offspring inherit the genetics of their parents, so he was unaware of these. On the geology front, he did have knowledge that some islands were once attached to continents, some were formed in the oceans by volcanoes, and that sea and land levels rose and fell over time, but this was many decades before modern plate tectonic theory came along to explain these. I don't believe he was aware of the drift of entire continents, or that they were once joined together, which would have been advantageous in explaining distributions of life and fossils. So he was seriously handicapped in his ability to explain the mechanisms behind the processes he was seeing, and claimed ignorance many times in the book.

As we know the book is fallible (despite what creationists say we think), it surely has some errors. My area of scientific training is not biology or geology, but I managed to find a few anyways. One was a section in which Darwin expresses doubt that mass-extinctions could be possible (don't make me find the page, I have no idea where it is now). They didn't know about impacts from space in his day, but today we know that they are real and can cause extinctions on a global scale.

At about the mid-point of the book, I also wondered to myself what kind of book Darwin would have written had he known then what we know today. The extra facts and depth of the fossil record surely would have helped him to craft his case. He was a man of great intelligence, who was limited by what humanity knew at the time.

Overall, it is a must-read book for people who are interested in science, or history of science. But be aware that it is a tough read, and can sometimes be a real chore to continue. I'm reminded of a proverb about an unrelated topic, which I'll adapt for my purposes here. "It is wise to read Origin of Species once, but only a fool would read it twice."

No comments: