Thursday, May 31, 2012

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 2

The second part of my reading began with the Laws of Variation.  Mr. Darwin writes at some length about the reproductive system being subject to changes from the conditions of life, how deviation must have causes, and how elements of an organism can be lost through disuse.  He cites many examples.  He talks about plants in different climates.  I am not entirely sure how to convey how interesting I find these sections, simply as a student of the world, but I kept feeling as if this book might do well to have illustrations.  Lo and behold, such an edition exists and now my heart is full of discontent over my measly Bantam Classics mass market paperback.  It would benefit from illustrations for those times when one is reading away from Google and Wikipedia and cannot look up the 550 species of beetles in Madeira or the opercular valves of sissile cirripedes.

While he readily admits our profound ignorance of the laws of variation, he, nonetheless, does illustrate to satisfaction that it is observable in nature that habit, use, and disuse have and do play an important role in the modification of organisms.  He also, as seems to be his custom, then examines the issue through the lens of what humans are capable of with breeding and domestication.  He points out that the tendency towards variation and the tendency to return to the original states both serve to make sustained traits difficult in breeding.

Returning once again to matters ecclesiastical, I was surprised to find this line at the end of a chapter, specifically referring to those who might argue for the independent creation of each individual species.  He says that this argument "makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore."  I was astonished at how similar this was to my own reasoning.  I have had discussions before over stars and our knowledge of the Speed of Light alone suggesting that either 1) the Universe is ancient beyond our imagination or 2) God made the stars look old to trick us.

It might also be prudent to note at this point another common misunderstanding.  Mr. Darwin is not writing about the Origin of Life.  He is writing about the Origin of Species.  As of writing this I am about 2/3rds of the way through the text and so far that is his entire focus in this book.  It is a book suggesting that species evolve(d) from other species.  It does not mention the point of singularity.  

Another section which surprised me was his addressing of Difficulties on Theory.  Have you ever heard any of these arguments against Darwinian Evolution?:

-If species evolved from other species, where are the transitional forms?
-Why are there seemingly trifling organs?
-How could an organ as complex as an eye evolve?
-What about the seeming intelligence of, for example, the bee and the cells which they create?
-What about sterility in crossed species?

I have heard all of these arguments from those who oppose the concept of Darwinian Evolution.  I have heard those questions from pulpits and in Christian books.  What I had not heard from those sources is that all of those questions are addressed and answered by Darwin in this book.  This alone would, in my opinion, be sufficient reason to recommend reading this book to anyone.  I do wonder if the reason these arguments are used by the opposition is from a lazy cursory reading of Darwin or simply feeling safe in the assumption that none of their readers will actually go and read Darwin for themselves.  However, again, I feel I should state that belief or disbelief are moot.  You can disbelieve gravitation all you want, but you're still not going to float off into space.

Also, I am not going to go over his responses here because you should read the book (and write your own paper.)

Darwin likens how certain variations emerge at certain times to how at certain points in time you will find two men coming up with the same invention completely independently of one another.  Which is funny because that is precisely the case in the book that I am reading.  Darwin hastened publication of this book because Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the same idea on his own.  Darwin wanted to beat him to the punch and so rushed to press.

Darwin begins employing a Latin phrase in this section as well which seems like it is to recur throughout the rest of my reading: Natura non facit saltum.  It is the natural selection mantra.  It means "Nature does not make jumps."  We will return to this concept many times I'm sure.

I also read the section on Instinct.  We spend a lot of time watching insects in this chapter.  I was surprised by the existence of philanthropy in nature (as illustrated by the behavior of aphides towards ants.)  Also about the existence of slaves in certain insect communities.  He rounds out the chapter with a fascinating look at the structure of honeycombs. 

Another surprise to me has been how readable I've found this book.  I have not found it difficult in the least.  So far St. Augustine has been the biggest slog in this series.  I am finding Darwin if not overly charming at the very least quite interesting.

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