Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin: A review


This book had been in my reading queue so long it might have grown roots there. Every time it worked its way to the top, I would find a reason to read something else. But now, in this age of anti-intellectualism, anti-science fervor when some governments (such as that of the state of Texas) would ban and burn this book if they could get away with it, it seemed to me that the best response was to actually read it. So I did. 

It was not an easy read. The book was written for non-specialist readers but not really for the general public, and Darwin went into great detail, using the scientific vocabulary of his day, to explain his thinking, his methods, and how he came to formulate his theory of how species came into being and how they continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he continually gives credit to those scientists who have come before him, as well as his contemporaries, who have contributed to his process and to his findings.

He also lays out in detail various arguments that might be made against his theory and then does his best to answer them. They are much the same arguments that one might hear from a creationist today.

Darwin begins his explanation and defense of his theory by discussing animal husbandry. He writes of humans' effect upon their domesticated animals, breeding them to enhance the characteristics which they find attractive and want to encourage. He spends a great deal of time discussing pigeons and how humans have shaped them into many different breeds that differ in great detail from the original rock pigeon. He will return to the example of the pigeon throughout the book.

He then goes on to show that Nature works in essentially the same way as the human breeders of animals. The difference is that humans try to attain the ideal they are seeking in as few generations of the animal as possible, while Nature works on the scale of geological time. Thus, creating a species through natural selection may take thousands and thousands of years with minor, almost imperceptible changes taking place with each generation.

But those minor changes are of the greatest importance. Each tiny adjustment is tested in the crucible of survival of the fittest. If it is a change that will help an entity to survive, the change will be retained and probably enhanced in the next generation. If it is a change that does not contribute to survival or strengthening of its host, then it will be discarded - along with the host. This process is completed time after time across the eons with the goal always being that of survival and creating a better host.

It is now 157 years since Darwin, with some trepidation, sent his book into the world. We know that the book created a sensation in the scientific community and the general public at the time, and it generated considerable and sometimes fiery scientific, philosophical, and religious debate. After more than 150 years of such discussions, it still creates controversy in some quarters, but it is accepted as the foundation of evolutionary biology and there is no well-reasoned argument against it. Those who refuse to accept it generally do so on the basis of their religious faith which admonishes them to accept the holy book of that faith as history/science/philosophy, and that, of course, is their right.

The rest of us accept Darwin's theory as the unifying concept of the life sciences and view him as a hero in the history of science and the promulgation and popularization of the scientific method of thinking. Though we may still only see through a glass darkly, the light that shines through is in large part due to his work and writing. 

(Obviously, the book is worthy of five stars. It gets only four from me only because it was such a bloody ordeal to read!)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

8 comments:

  1. I'm glad you got to read it. It has never crossed my mind to read it as in general I am afraid of classics, but maybe someday I will...

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    1. I've read some of your reviews of scientific books. I think you would appreciate it, but I won't sugarcoat it: It is a tough read.

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  2. Well done for persevering. It was on my reading list at school and at uni. I don't think I ever got to the end!

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    1. I admit I might have skimmed rather rapidly over some sections, but it feels good to finally be able to tick that box on my reading list.

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  3. Oh my, I bet it feels good to have read this! When you said that in light of the anti-science push back lately "it seemed to me that the best response was to actually read it" I felt vindicated in my decision this week that reading and writing about books is my resistance and demonstration to the way things are going. Actually it has been for a long time and it is clear that my work is not done:)

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    1. I feel the need to do whatever I can - little though it may be - to support science and the scientific method of reasoning.

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    2. I told a couple of reading group friends about you reading this. They were impressed!

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