Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Darwin Away

One of the most important books you never read ...

Talk about strange bedfellows: the Christian Science Monitor reports on the project of an evangelical minister to distribute thousands of copies of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species on college campuses around the country, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the book's first publication.

True, there is some fine print. The minister has put out his own edition, which includes an introduction of his own that refutes the book and admonishes readers to "read the Bible daily and obey what you read." Even so, I think it's a swell idea because it means that some percentage of college students will actually read the whole book who might never have done so otherwise. And I have enough faith in Our Youth to trust them to sort it out for themselves. I've met some of them and would stack their wits up against those of any other generation, be it X, Y or Z, that you would care to name.

But you don't have to wait for someone to walk up and foist one upon you -- why not pick up a copy? Many editions are available, including free digital ones for your ebook reader (visit feedbooks.com). I have a nice little pocket sized hardbound with gilt edged pages put out by Barnes & Noble's Collector's Library, which sells for only $5.95.

With all the furor that continues to surround Darwin's work, you might think that by now everyone must have read it since they have such strong opinions on his ideas. Of course, the opposite is the case. Many of the strongest opinions, both pro and con, are voiced by people who have only heard about those ideas at second hand. And depending on what the source of their information is, they may be seriously misinformed. The book itself languishes unread.

Indeed, most of the fuss is about the origins of human beings, and so complaints should be directed not against Origin, but Darwin's later work, The Descent of Man. But it is true that he was only following to its logical conclusion the theory of evolution by natural selection which he had laid out in the first book. And by then it was obvious to anyone who had understood what he was saying that human beings were part and parcel of the same natural order, and must have arisen from earlier forms of life just as all other species had done.

Curiously, the work had a warmer public reception when it debuted, at least in some circles, than it has now. Boiled down to the misleading summary, "survival of the fittest," it was seen to explain the superiority of European civilization, and to lend the weight of historic inevitability to the colonization and subjugation of the rest of the world. "Man," as humans were known in those simpler and less politically correct times, had emerged on top of the heap of Nature, and white men were destined to be on top of the heap of other races.

Of course this is as much a misinterpretation of Darwin's work as it is to believe it is an affront to God or a justification of atheism. Darwin may have been a bit on the fence as to the role a Creator may have played in all this, but his intention was simply to explore the nature of things as they are, and to learn from that how they may have been in the past. He sought an answer to the question not of who created us, but how it happened. It was an audacious project, especially given that so little was known at the time about the mechanism of heredity. DNA was more than a century in the future, and not even genes had been hypothesized yet.

In his meticulous, almost plodding way, Darwin worked his way from observations of domestic breeding of livestock, to differences between isolated populations of animals, and ended up with the first really plausible explanation for the variety and progressive changes that can be seen everywhere in the world surrounding us.

Maybe the word "plodding" is unkind, but Darwin's carefulness bordered on the compulsive. He labored over Origin for twenty years, during which time Mr. Wallace came up with basically the same idea and almost beat him into print, in which case it would now be known as Wallace's Theory of Evolution. Thanks to the fairness of peer review, it was agreed that the two gentlemen would both present their papers at the same time. Neither of them made much of a stir at first, but once the dust settled Darwin was credited with precedence and by far the most thorough working out of the idea.

After all that, it's amazing to see the author apologizing in his introduction for what he evidently considered to be a sort of first draft or summary of his ideas! "This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. ... No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this."

If the 500 pages that follow are to be considered sketchy, what might his full treatment have amounted to? Something on the scale of the Britannica, I suppose. Anyway, I commend them to your careful attention. After all this time and all that has been learned since, this book still stands as one of the principle landmarks in the history of human consciousness, the time when we first turned to look back from where we came and discerned the first inklings of the tracks we left behind us in the sand.

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
- Charles Darwin, Introduction to The Origin of Species

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