Friday, June 8, 2012

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species- Part 3

“The finger of God never leaves identical fingerprints.” -Stanislaus Lec

I had intended to break this book into four blog entry responses, but enthusiasm got the better of me and I finished the whole thing over the past few days.  So, this is the conclusion.

Darwin was wrong about one thing, although it was something that everyone was wrong about in his day and for a long time afterward.  He spent a great deal of this section writing about geology and he has no concept of tectonic plates or of Pangea, a relatively new scientific understanding.  (Fun fact: Did you know that one of the last things Albert Einstein ever wrote was the foreword to a book about the coming polar shifts?  The major hypothesis of how it was to happen in that book relied on a pre-tectonic plate understanding of the Earth's crust.)   Darwin then sets up and jumps through a lot of hoops in the latter half of the book to explain how different species came to be located in different places on the planet.  This leads to what I found to be some of the more entertaining portions of the entire text. 

Some of the sections that I found most interesting involved experiments that Darwin carried out to see how long diverse and sundry seeds could float in salt water and still germinate.  He observes how many and often seeds are found stuck to the feet of birds.  This suggests an extremely old Earth from the law of averages of how often seeds would stick to the feet of birds or float across the sea for us to find similar flora in different lands.  He talks about a time on the Beagle when a bird blew onto their deck, confused and very far from home as he knew it to be a landlocked bird from far far away.

It is also important to mention his repeated referral to the imperfection of our geological record (and that the geological record is intermittent).  He was correct.  The geological record was imperfect and, as it fleshed out over the following 150 years, turned out to support his theory far more than he likely would even have imagined.  At the end of the book (and I mean within the last 5 pages) he slips dangerously close to a polemic.  He has a great deal to say to the special creation crowd, but he also reserves some fire for geologists, essentially haranguing them to get their act together.

There is also a section on hybridism.  In one portion he talks about diversity strengthening species (as in diverse groups within the species procreating leading to stronger individuals).  I hear that this was a special point of concern for Darwin as he worried that having married his first cousin might have been related to the poor health and early deaths of some of their own children.

The section on extinction was a bit archaic as well.  At one point he writes "...the utter extinction of a group is generally, as we have seen, a slower process than its production."  In the margin I wrote "Yeah, not so much anymore!"  Which leads to a modern given that seems to have been entirely beyond the imagination of Mr. Darwin, that is to say the destructive capacity of humankind.  To read this biologist writing in a time before one could even think that humankind has it within their grasp to kill every living thing on the planet reminds me of looking into the face of my grandchild and wondering what it was like to be unaware that one day you will die.

Darwin never gets to the "Monkeys is peoples" part.  I am given to understand that one must needs read The Descent of Man for that little gem.  He does suggest that the embryonic state of a species recalls the parent form, but that's as close as we get to all of the fuss.  The Descent of Man is not included in the curriculum of  this current reading project, but given how much I've enjoyed reading Darwin I fully expect to read it one day.

We do get this, "Whenever it is fully admitted, as I believe it will some day be, that each species has proceeded from a single birthplace, and when in the course of time we know something definite about the means of distribution, we shall be enabled to speculate with security on the former extension of the land."  Rather, we grew to understand both more fully, but the "single birthplace" line has been a pebble in my shoe for the past few days.

I recommend reading Darwin.  As I've said before, it is a piece that one must deal with one way or another at some point or another in life.  You really ought to read what the man has to say for himself rather than taking it through the filter of others.  Then and only then do you get to come over the grown ups table when you talk about these ideas.  If you are a person of faith, let me, as a person of faith, assure you that there is no idea in this work that will shatter your faith.  In fact, I would say that if there is an idea out there that will shatter your faith, you have a much bigger problem than that idea existing.  It means that your faith is weak and shatter-able.

Although, even better, it is a fascinating book with so much to teach.  Darwin is tremendously generous with his knowledge of the natural world and his ideas are well worth engaging with.  As with so much of this series, I feel richer for the experience.  You read to engage with ideas for yourself.  If you don't want to engage with ideas, you are living incorrectly.

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