In December 2019, before we knew what the following months held in store, I made a New Year’s resolution to read On the Origin of Species. I have a beautiful folio edition that I received for my birthday, and I wanted to check it off my TBR list for a couple of reasons. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I learned as an adult how much I love science. Second, and more importantly, in a country where roughly 20% of adults reject the idea that humans have evolved, I wanted to be able to respond to misconceptions by saying, “Actually, Darwin never said [fill in the blank],” and know what I was talking about first-hand. My initial plan was to read a chapter of the dense, 445-page publication (plus 30 pages of introductions) by alternating a chapter of Darwin with something lighter. As the year got progressively more depressing and my ability to focus even on lighter fare waned, I abandoned this plan and decided to read whatever my mood dictated, so that when CBR BINGO ended I was still faced with around 250 pages of Darwin and December 31 fast approaching. Yet here we are! I dug deep and plowed through, tagging paragraphs with my beloved book darts and posting this review with 4 days to spare!
Eking out a win in 2020!
I’m not going to pretend I understood everything in Darwin’s seminal work. The chapters on geology, for example, left me foggy, and those pages and are notably lacking in book darts. More interesting, though, is that I responded to many of the passages I did understand with a, “Well, duh, Darwin. Of course that’s how it happens.” So ingrained now are Darwin’s (and let’s be fair, Alfred Russell Wallace’s) ideas that it’s easy to forget how much this publication shook things up. As Charles G. Darwin says in the 1962 preface to his grandfather’s work, “In the opinion of many experts the general thinking of man about the world has been changed more by The Origin of Species than by any other book–at any rate since the time when Newton in his Principia propounded the theory of universal gravitation.” Certainly Charles G. is biased, yet Darwin the elder knew the theory would cause a stir and dedicated 35 pages to addressing “difficulties of the theory,” and another 40 to “miscellaneous objections to the theory.” Point being, this was cutting edge, and not all scientists embraced these ideas immediately.
So what does Darwin say? Apologies if I’m insulting anyone’s intelligence, but I think it’s important to first point out that we typically refer to Darwin’s theory as the “theory of evolution,” which is a shortcut that leads to misconceptions. The idea that animals evolve has been around for thousands of years. Darwin’s spin was that species evolve by means of natural selection; that is, organisms that are best suited for their environment thrive and reproduce. In his own words, “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”
The way this happens is that variations, which occur naturally, are preserved when they are advantageous to the organism. When a variation has a negative effect, it dies out because those organisms that carry it are at a disadvantage. “This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.”
Me, realizing the payoff in this book is on page 60 and I still have 385 pages to go
As mentioned previously, Darwin dedicates copious ink to addressing objections to his theory. For example, “Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?” To put that in Creationist speak, how come there are no half-bird/half-reptile fossils?
And if dinosaurs and man didn’t exist at the same time, then where did the museum come from?
For Darwin, the answer was simply that our fossil record was (and is) imperfect. Today, we do know about intermediary fossils, the most famous of which is Archaeopteryx, the feathered dinosaur fossil that was discovered in 1861, two years after On the Origin of Species was first published. While Darwin knew that he didn’t have every piece of the fossil record, he was confident that the intermediate fossils existed, for Nature non fact saltum (Nature makes no leaps).
Another objection to Darwin’s theory is that intermediate stages are not useful to an organism’s survival and so can’t explain the advantageous form. For example, a giraffe’s long neck helps it reach places other animals can’t and, therefore, helps the giraffe survive, especially in times of food shortage. The contrarian would say, “Sure, Darwin, but if your theory is correct, then the giraffe must have had an only slightly longer neck at some point, right? And that only slightly longer neck wouldn’t be useful for the giraffe’s survival.”
I am so screwed.
“Not so!” says Darwin. Even the intermediate step of the neck being slightly longer gives the giraffe an advantage. Obviously these arguments get more complicated when you get into intermediate steps for things like eyeballs and swim bladders, but Darwin makes the case that the steps all give the organism some degree of advantage. Darwin explains this better than I can, so you’ll need to just read the book if you want to know more.
Those who resist the theory of natural selection often point to the perfection of this or that animal and use that as proof of why evolutionary theory is bunk. I have long thought that the evidence for natural selection is in the imperfect; for example, if intelligent design were at work, why on earth would the Great Planner make an anteater walk on the sides of its feet or its knuckles when giving the poor creature retractable claws would have been more efficient?
Can’t walk today, just got my nails done!
Or why would giant panda or the red panda have a bone that has adapted to act like a thumb when a decent designer could have just, ya know, supplied a real thumb? Unbeknownst to me, Darwin commented on this very thing in his summary: “How strange it is that a bird, under the form of a woodpecker, should prey on insects on the ground; that upland geese which rarely or never swim, should possess webbed feet; that a thrush-like bird should dive and feed on sub-aquatic insects. . . and so 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 might even have been anticipated.”
Darwin was a self-described agnostic and, while he certainly wasn’t out to attack anyone’s religion with his theories, he considered the question of the existence of God to be irrelevant to science. He writes, “But many naturalists think that something more is meant by Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or both, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge.” At the same time, he concludes in his summary, “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.”
For a science geek, reading Darwin’s own words as he describes his observations in the Galapagos, or talking about the exclusively North-American condor, or describing a parasitic bee that I’d never heard of, is thrilling. I’m excited to have read this book in its entirety. Now, with that off my bucket list, I can take it easy in 2021.