23 January 2015

Darwin in Context

Over the past couple of months I happen to read two books about Darwin: The first was Darwin's Ghosts by Rebecca Stott and the second was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin by David Quammen. Both of these books have inspired me in different ways. I have already begun to act on my inspiration from Darwin's Ghosts, but having just finished The Reluctant Mr. Darwin today I'll have to see if my motivation results in action.

In Darwin's Ghosts, Rebecca Stott tells the story of many of Darwin's predecessors who touched on different ideas of evolution—From Aristotle to Wallace and many individuals in-between. With the exception of Wallace, no one else proposed anything like natural selection. Many of the people discussed in the book didn't really propose much of a mechanism for evolution, or transmutation, but they did propose that species evolved or changed—that is they were not created. Some of them even went so far as to suggest that all species developed from a single common ancestor.

What made this book inspiring for me was that Stott, placed each person in context of the social and political environment in which they lived. Each of them in their own way was a revolutionary, at least in their thinking. For some, to suggest that species changed, as opposed to have been created by a higher power, was extraordinarily risky. But beyond that, to develop their ideas, based on their observations and what they had read, placed them as intellectuals and free-thinkers. They were definitely coming up with new ideas that were very radical, given the culture they lived in. It makes you think, what are the unsaid cultural assumptions that limit our thinking today. It is nice to assume that we live in an environment of free thought, that allows for everyone's ideas, but I am not sure that is true. Occasionally we still hear stories of peer-review papers that are rejected and highly criticized, only to receive a Nobel prize later on. The same is true for works of fiction that are rejected multiple times, only to become best sellers once they finally get published.

I have strayed a bit from how this inspired me. I already knew about of many of the scientists discussed in the book, but I hadn't thought of them in the context of their everyday lives before. Some of them were involved in explorations or published books that included beautiful natural history illustrations. I have been interested in natural history illustration for a long time, but not just in the illustrations as art, or even the illustrations as a means of communicating scientific information. Some of what interests me with scientific illustration is the evolution of illustrationfrom simple wood blocks to metal engravings, then to wood engravings, then lithography, etc. Along with changes in the medium used for illustration, techniques were developed in older mediums to replicate the benefits of other mediums. For example, wood engravings took some techniques from metal engravings, and stippled metal engravings developed from aspects of lithography.

Furthermore, I am interested in the illustrators themselves. Some scientists illustrated their own works, but many books that are renowned for their illustrations, were illustrated by little known illustrators. Take for example, Louis Agassiz. His publications frequently include outstanding illustrations. It is common to read about how Agassiz couldn't find an illustrator that he was satisfied with in the USA, so he brought Antoine Sonrel to the USA as his personal illustrator. Beyond this tidbit of information, little has been published about Antoine Sonrel—He deserves more. Sonrel is just one example, since most scientists have not illustrated their own works, there are many many more illustrators that are virtually unknown today. Their work as artists is overshadowed by the science they illustrated. But you have to ask, what would the science have been without their illustrations?

David Quammen's book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, has the same general approach as Stott's book, in that Quammen places Darwin in his cultural context to discuss why it took twenty years and the threat of loosing priority to Wallace for Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species. It is an enjoyable read and covers some of the same people and topics that Stott's book does, but from a different angle and at times with a considerably different perspective. As true title suggests Quammen's book is much more Darwin focused.

The inspiration I found in Quammen's book stems from one short section, perhaps one sentence. At one point Quammen mentions the overriding importance of On the Origin of Species, but then adds that it is odd that relatively few biologists, or even evolutionary biologists have actually read the book. This struck me, as I must confess, I am guilty. I have a couple of copies of the book and it has been on my "to read" shelf for years. I just never seem to get around to it.

Now that these two books have set the stage, putting evolutionary ideas and Darwin himself in cultural context, I think it is high time I read On the Origin of Species. Without having begun, I would recommend reading Both Stott's book and Quammen's book, perhaps before reading Darwin's book. Part of my fear in reading Darwin has been that I know there are some portions of the book that are known not to apply and I haven't wanted to be disappointed in the book as a whole. I think now that Darwin's Ghosts and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin have prepared me for these portions, by adding a context for me to interpret them, I won't be disappointed at all. In fact, I may be even more impressed with the work, knowing more about it's history and the scientific and social environment in which it was published.

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