08 July 2015

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life

I finished On the Origin of Species a couple of months ago and have been thinking about what I can say about it ever since. It would be useless to try to review the book — after all it is one of the most influential books ever published. Although it is more than 150 years old, the vast majority of the book remains quite accurate. Yes ideas on evolution have grown since 1859, and we now know about genetics, which Darwin could only postulate, but the ideas put forth in On the Origin of Species have changed surprisingly little. On one hand the book has been a springboard for biology as well as many other disciplines, but at the same time that springboard remains virtually unchanged. Given the state of biological knowledge in the 1850s, On the Origin of Species represents a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Back when I took evolution in college I remember thinking that Alfred Russel Wallace got the short end of the stick and should be equally recognized for figuring out natural selection. In college the whole story was presented basically as follows: Darwin figured out natural selection as the principle mode of evolution in 1839, but because of various reasons, including his religious background he didn't tell many people about it and refused to publish or publicize the idea. That was until Wallace sent him a letter in 1858 describing the same mode of evolution and Darwin was forced to publish or risk loosing credit as the first person to figure natural selection out.

After reading Darwin's Ghosts, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and On the Origin of Species I have to say that the impression given in college is so oversimplified as to be entirely inaccurate. I now firmly believe Darwin deserves full credit for coming up with natural selection. We do owe Wallace a debit of thanks for helping things turn out they way they did. His role was vitally important. However, if Darwin remained silent after receiving Wallace's letter in 1858, or if Wallace would have published without contacting Darwin, the history of biology would be quite different, as would our current knowledge of biology.

Darwin was one of those unique people in scientific history who had the ability to come up with a novel idea and then continue to examine the idea throughly — while trying to find any faults that might prove the idea wrong or imperfect. After first noting natural selection in his notebook in 1839, Darwin began a twenty year research project to examine every possible aspect of the idea to see if it was correct or not. In 1844 he wrote a short essay presenting his research findings on evolution and spelling out the mode of natural selection. It seems his intention in doing this was to insure the idea would be published if he were to die before he completed his research. In this will he instructed his wife to publish it if he died. He also showed it to Lyell and Hooker, but asked them to keep it confidential.

Over the next 15 years, Darwin proceeded to gather data examining natural selection. He published some of this data prior to 1859, but the bulk of it was published after On the Origin of Species. The reason for this is that Darwin had planned on publishing a large monograph on natural selection, including all of the data he had collected in support of the idea. I am sure he would have also objectively presented the arguments against natural selection at the same time. In fact he did this in On the Origin of Species as a way to discuss each argument.

This is where we have Wallace to thank. If Darwin proceeded as he had planned, his monograph on natural selection would have been published in several volumes and appealed only to other scientists. Even those other scientists would have had a difficult time gleaning the importance of natural selection from the massive text. After receiving a copy of On the Origin of Species, Hooker wrote to Darwin, "I am all the more glad that you have published in this form, for the three volumes, unprefaced by this, would have choked any naturalist of the nineteenth century" (Freeman, 1977). Once Wallace had arrived at natural selection as the primary mode of evolution, Darwin felt he needed to publish something on his life's work. Imagine working on something for twenty years, then being faced with the possibility of having your life's work overshadowed by someone who just came up with the same answer, but had none of the supporting information to refute all of the arguments against it. That is what Darwin faced.

Darwin began writing On the Origin of Species in July 1858. By October 1859 it was at the printers and typeset. Darwin meant the book to be an abstract of his yet to be published monograph on evolution. Judging from the length of this abstract, 424 pages (not including the index), you can see how long the actual monograph may have been. In fact, most of the books Darwin published after 1859 would have been parts of this monograph and they do include several multi-volume books. Since this was an abstract, Darwin did not include citations or acknowledgements — although acknowledgements were added in a later edition and inspired Darwin's Ghosts.

Because On the Origin of Species was a summary of the data Darwin had collected and considered, it was a much more readable book than he had intended. We have Wallace to thank for that. Because of it's readability, On the Origin of Species was widely read and talked about by a wide range of people from all sorts of backgrounds. It made an instant impact which catapulted it to its well deserved spot as one of the most important and influential books ever published.

Now if we reconsider Wallace and if he should share credit for figuring out the process of evolution by natural selection, we find that his contribution is mostly limited to ensuring Darwin published On the Origin of Species in it's current form. In August 1858, more than a year before On the Origin of Species was published, Wallace's paper on natural selection was published, along side parts of Darwin's 1844 manuscript (see: http://wallaceletters.info/sites/wallaceletters.info/files/1858_PAPER.pdf). It's impact — virtually nothing from anyone at the meeting, or anyone who received the journal, nor in the media, nothing at all from anyone. Much like Mendel's paper on genetics, the Wallace-Darwin paper lay dormant waiting for someone to realize its importance.

Then more than a year later, On the Origin of Species was published and the world stood up to pay attention. It was published as a book for the general public, accessible to anyone. It was reprinted almost immediately, widely discussed and debated. Revisions started almost immediately as well - and this is where the real credit gets solidified for Darwin. Since he had contemplated natural selection for twenty years, testing all aspects and arguments against it, Darwin was prepared for the critics. Wallace, on the other hand, had come up with the mechanism of natural selection, but had not considered every aspect of the idea. In fact, on his personal copy of the Wallace-Darwin paper (pdf link above), Wallace wrote: 

" 1860. Feb."
"After reading Mr. Darwin's admirable work "On the Origin of Species," I find that there is absolutely nothing here that is not in almost perfect agreement with that gentleman's facts & opinions."
"His work however touches upon & explains in detail many points which I had scarcely thought upon, - as the laws of variation, correlation of growth, sexual selection, the origin of instincts &  of neuter insects, & the true explanation of embryological affinities. Many of his facts & explanations in geographical distribution are also quite new to me & of the highest interest. A. R. Wallace, Amboina."

In summary, I would highly recommend reading On the Origin of Species to anyone with an interest or background in biology. However, times have changed since 1859 and I would also recommend reading Darwin's Ghosts and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin first. These books offer a nice context for reading On the Origin of Species with greater understanding and appreciation then could be expected by just reading Darwin's masterpiece alone.

A few notes about the impact of reading On the origin of Species to me personally: Since reading On the origin of Species I have watched two movies and read a book that have helped me better understand Darwin as a person and scientist. The book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, and the two movies, The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking and The Imitation Game about Alan Turing helped me understand Darwin and the way he worked. He was undoubtedly an introvert - a characteristic shared by a surprising number of scientists (including Hawking and Turing), particularly those who have made significant contributions. I would recommend all three of these. The book, Quiet also helped me understand aspects of my own personality that I have struggled with all of my life - living in a world that expects everyone to be an extrovert and feeling guilty that my behavior doesn't quite fit.

On a more recent note, I have been reading about Dyslexia. It is quite different then what people thought it was when I was in school & college. Far from being a sign of inferior intelligence, Dyslexia is a different way in which a person's brain can work. I hope to write more about dyslexia later. For now I will just mention one aspect of Dyslexia that reminds me of Darwin - and I have no idea if Darwin was dyslexic or not. Anyone can have the characteristics typical of dyslexic styles of brain function, they are just more common and pronounced in dyslexics. Anyway, as presented in the book, The Dyslexic Advantage, Darwin demonstrated a keen ability for dynamic reasoning - these are the reasoning skills required to think well about complex, variable, and dynamic systems. His ability to take ideas and information presented in different contexts and apply them to a new system is exactly what Darwin did to arrive at natural selection as the primary mode of evolution.

Initially I began reading a copy of the first American edition of On the Origin of Species which is a copy of the first edition, but published a few months later in the USA. I became worried and an accident could happen around the house and damage the book, so I put it away and started reading David Quammen's (editor) illustrated edition of the first edition. Although the illustrations add a lot to this edition - if you are not reading the book - I found them very distracting while reading the book. The illustrations add to the history of Darwin, but do not relate directly, if at all to the text. By chapter four, I settled on the audiobook version of the first edition read by Bill DeWees. I found his American accent less distracting and easier to follow than the audiobooks read by British narrators. The audiobook also made it easier for me to get through some of the lengthy, comma-riddled, sentences. At times On the Origin of Species is quite elegant, but at other times it can be a bit tedious. Nonetheless, it is well worth reading, even if you choose to listen to an audiobook.

Finally, I have avoided the term "theory of evolution." This is an antiquated term whose use has long since deserved to be abandon. Evolution is no longer a theory, it is a fact, plain and simple. To say "theory" suggests it is still unproven or in question. It is not. Anyone who uses the term "theory of evolution" or "theory of natural selection" should be immediately corrected and discouraged from its continued use. These terms only support faith based groups who deny science (facts) in favor of beliefs than can never be proven.

Eide, B.L. & F.F. Eide (2011) The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Plume, New York, 283 p.

Freeman, R.B. (1977) The Works of Charles Darwin: An Annotated Bibliographical Handlist, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged. Wm. Dawson & Sons Ltd., Kent, 235 p.

Quammen, D. (2007) The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charkles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. W.W. Norton, New York, 304 p.

Stott, R. (2012) Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 396 p.

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