I hadn’t planned it, but I finished my first complete read-through of a single Darwin book just as he’s back in the news. Last fall, I posted about Adam Gopnik’s terrific essay on the man and his writings, which was in part a response to the beautifully packaged, heavy-as-hell collection From So Simple a Beginning. This bad boy rests with great pressure on the abdomen, as it holds all of Darwin’s four major works: The Voyage of the Beagle (1845), On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). My goal this year is to read the second and third, and, as of earlier this week, I’m halfway there.
First, a word from E.O. Wilson (interviewed here, in a fascinating Charlie Rose interview), who edited the book and provides an introduction:
The revolution in astronomy begun by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 proved that Earth is not the center of the universe, nor even the center of the solar system. The revolution begun by Darwin was even more humbling: it showed that humanity is not the center of creation, and not its purpose either. But in freeing our minds from our imagined demigod bondage, even at the price of humility, Darwin turned our attention to the astounding power of the natural creative process and the magnificence of its products.
I’ve written before about those books you read and then can’t imagine not having read, and Origin belongs in this camp. It’s certainly a feat of a book, and – I’m here to say – very readable for the non-scientist. Lots of things go through one’s mind reading this text: what a massive amount of information he’s handling, and with such skill; how curious he is, and how patient; how unboastful he is, as he notes our profound ignorance of certain matters and what should be our shared awe at what is coming into focus (“What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts?” he asks at one point, suggesting that it’s the facts that are extraordinary, not him); how careful he is with language; how willing he is to acknowledge the reader’s position in all this (“This may not be a cheering prospect,” he writes in the final chapter, with one of my very favorite lines); and, lastly, how brave.
On to a few quotes. In his own introduction to the book, Darwin wants the reader to know “I have not been hasty in coming to a decision,” which is certainly an understatement. He closes chapter one this way:
Over all these causes of Change I am convinced that the accumulative action of Selection, whether applied methodically and more quickly, or unconsciously and more slowly, but more efficiently, is by far the predominant Power.
Later, closing chapter five:
Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents – and a cause for each must exist – it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.
Man does not actually produce variability; he only unintentionally exposes organic beings to new conditions of life, and then nature acts on the organisation, and causes variability.
How strange it is that a bird, under the form of woodpecker, should have been created to prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese, which never or rarely swim, should have been created with webbed feet; that a thrush should have been created with habits and structure fitting it for the life of an auk or grebe! and so on in endless other cases. But on the view of each species constantly trying to increase in number, with natural selection always ready to adapt the slowly varying descendants of each to any unoccupied or ill-occupied place in nature, these facts cease to be strange, or perhaps might even have been anticipated.
Lastly, I’ll close as he does, with this very special passage:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.