Return to Origin part 1

Introducing my new pet project

The Mammal has had an idea to boost her productivity! (OK, I’ve actually had this idea pretty much since I started CM. Speed has never been among my selling points 😛 ) Since most of the posts I start writing about current science seem to die in their cradles these days, I have decided to go back to Ye Olde Science and try my hands at an Origin of Species re-read. Because Origin is one of the foundational works of my discipline, and it proved to be a lot more interesting than a callow undergraduate student of evolutionary biology had expected. Also, there is a lot of material in it, and on previous reads I’ve had no shortage of thoughts about it. There is a faint chance it can sustain a few months of blog posts 🙂

I’ve never been too bothered about reading “the classics”. The classics of literature that school forced me to read often turned out to be terribly written, boring tomes whose “profound” meanings held little interest for a young person. Much of my higher education gave me the feeling that biology is such a fast-moving field that anything older than a decade or so is probably of little value except as a historical curiosity. I was, it turns out, very wrong about that for more than one reason. First, you don’t really start appreciating the value of older literature until decades-old, obscure zoological papers are the only place you can find any information at all about the question you are researching. Biology may move fast when it comes to the genetics of well-known model organisms, but it sure as hell takes its time in investigating the development and regeneration of serpulid opercula.

Second, history can be interesting in itself. Science is not a series of independent discoveries; it is a complex, organic growth cultivated by interconnected minds embedded deep in their respective societies. Which ideas get picked up and which ones are forgotten doesn’t just depend on the quality of the evidence but also on the zeitgeist. (The first example I thought of was, disturbingly, the triumph of Lysenkoism over real genetics under Stalin. I guess straight-up imprisoning or executing anyone who doesn’t like your pet advisor’s pet theory kind of counts as an effect of the zeitgeist?)

I first decided to read Darwin’s Origin a number of years ago out of curiosity. I was, after all, studying for an evolutionary biology degree, and Origin was kind of the book that kicked it all off. (I think it might have been on offer at the university bookstore when I went to buy some textbooks, too.) To be honest, I fully expected a boring, painfully outdated, horribly convoluted book. I expected reading it to be a chore. I certainly didn’t expect to find beauty – never mind revelations – in it.

Suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised. While Darwin’s writing style can be a drag for a modern reader with an attention span trained on Facebook posts and cat memes (he’s waaaaaay more fond of run-on sentences than I am, and I have to actively restrain myself from letting them grow out of control), it is quite beautiful at times. What’s more interesting from the scientist’s perspective – while a lot of Origin is indeed outdated, there are some surprisingly “modern” ideas that I never would have expected to find in a 19th century book. The third major surprise of my first read was the sheer amount of data involved. I suppose I’d always known that Darwin didn’t pull his theory out of thin air, but I hadn’t realised just how much careful observation went into his best-known work. No wonder it took him decades to finish [1].

And so, from the vantage of a few more years of learning, I decided to give Origin of Species another read and document my thoughts along the way. I have no idea if this is going to work out, but hopefully publishing the first part will give me the incentive to carry on.

Origin saw six editions altogether. The version I have, the 1985 Penguin Classics edition, contains the text of the first edition, but also includes the Historical Sketch that Darwin added later. The Sketch itself went through a number of revisions; I’m not entirely sure which version my copy has. (Origin can be read free of charge in several places online, including TalkOrigins and Darwin Online. TalkOrigins’s version is also a first edition text with the Sketch added.) It is with this Sketch that I’m going to kick off the re-read.

I won’t even attempt to summarise chapters, and I might have to split most of them into multiple posts for sheer length. Comments might be a bit disjointed, since they reflect thoughts that came into my head as I was reading – sometimes connected, but often quite scattered and tangential. Any page numbers refer to my Penguin edition, but I’ll try to remember to give some pointers (paragraph descriptions, section headings, quotes) for anyone reading a different version.

Darwin on the shoulders of giants – the Historical Sketch (pp53-63)

I find the Historical Sketch (hereafter: HS) tremendously interesting. I’m not entirely sure why it appeared in later editions of Origin; I had assumed that it was a response to claims that he was ripping people off, but googling the subject yielded surprisingly little information. Johnson (2007) calls its origin “somewhat obscure,” and Darwin’s own statements on the matter contradictory. Darwin’s correspondence doesn’t even clarify when the HS was written, let alone why. Similar historical introductions, Johnson notes, are not uncommon in scientific writings of the era, and it is quite possible that Darwin was already drafting one for his “big species book” (of which Origin was the abridged version) years before the publication of Origin, but not much evidence remains to fill in the details.

General observations

Regardless of where it comes from, the HS is an intriguing little run-down of the history of evolutionary ideas as Darwin saw it. If there is one take-home message from this brief preface to Origin, it is that no scientific advance is a lightbulb suddenly blinking on in the dark. Ideas have roots, and complicated ideas come together from many different roots, some of them, in this case, going right back to antiquity.

Any good biology curriculum includes some of the researchers and thinkers featured in the HS – who hasn’t heard of Lamarck and his silly-silly inheritance of acquired characteristics, for example?[2] However, schools tend to gloss over the sheer quantity of evolutionary thinking going on in late 18th and early- to mid-19th century biology. Well, in his ten-and-a-half-page summary, Darwin discusses 34 authors, all of whom entertained the idea that species might change over time, and many of whom considered possible mechanisms for such change. Most of these guys I’d either never heard of at the time I first read Origin, or I’d never known they had a connection to evolution. All in all, the HS definitely gives the impression of a biological community ripe for an evolutionary revolution.

Finally: oh GODS, some of this is so funny. The HS exhibits some prime examples of the kind of borderline impolite academic snark that you can also find in today’s scientific debates. Having done research and written a few papers myself, I find academic snark doubly entertaining; just how many ways can you call someone an idiot while maintaining that essential veneer of professionalism?

A page-by-page trip through Tangentia

A.k.a. any old silliness that popped into my head along the way.

Victorian titling conventions: clearly long before the invention of clickbait! The full title of Origin is the unwieldy The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. [3] The HS is technically called An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species Previously to the Publication of the First Edition of This Work. Quite a mouthful, but at least it tells you exactly what to expect. None of this “You Won’t Believe What This Man Found in His Soup!” nonsense!

Right off the bat, on p53: giant footnote that takes up half the page AND some of the next page. The HS has several of those, and I’m not entirely sure why they aren’t simply part of the main text. Luckily, the rest of the book is blissfully devoid of them.

By the way, this first footnote is pretty interesting. To me, anyway, since I spent a lot of time interacting with creationists, and by the quotes Darwin gives here, Aristotle (!) got something right that most creationists (or most people?) struggle with to this day. That being the idea that the traits of organisms do not arise in order to fulfil some goal – they just are, and if organisms seem well-adapted to their circumstances, that is because any that weren’t were exterminated by said circumstances.

P55, the discussion of Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (the guy who sort-of invented dorsoventral inversion) and his ideas about the descent of species from original “types”: I love how Darwin just assumes that his readership knows French. This isn’t the last untranslated French quote in this book by a long shot. (This particular one, Google Translate tells me, basically boils down to “we need more research”.)

Also on the same page, in the next paragraph about WC Wells’s views – I honestly hadn’t known that “negroes and mulattoes [enjoying] immunity from certain tropical diseases” was already established in the early 19th century. Darwin doesn’t detail which diseases – wonder if malaria is among them? Seeing as sickle cell trait and malaria immunity is one of the textbook examples of heterozygote advantage in modern courses on evolution. I’m quite impressed (though maybe I shouldn’t be) that not only were scientists aware of differences in disease susceptibility, but also attributed these to something akin to natural selection. (Although I’m pretty certain that an understanding of the genetics was far out of reach for the naturalists of the time.)

On the next couple of pages, there are at least three allusions to archetypes that related species are thought to have diverged from. There seems to be a theme running through all of these “type” concepts, although Darwin doesn’t always give direct quotes, so I don’t know how accurate his descriptions of his colleagues’ views are. In connection with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, he mentions related species being “degenerations of the same type”; W. Herbert supposedly suggested “highly plastic” original forms to be the ancestor of each plant genus, and Rafinesque (this is a direct quote) wrote that “varieties are gradually becoming species by assuming constant and peculiar characters”, that is, “except the original types or ancestors of a genus”.

So the general thrust of this seemingly fashionable idea is that the ancestors of living species were more variable and less specialised than their descendants. Does anyone hear definite SJ Gouldian undertones here? Isn’t this basically the late great Gould’s view of the Cambrian Explosion in a nutshell? I guess I should have expected this idea to go very far back, what with Platonic ideals and all that, but it still took me by surprise to find it in this context.

… also, it took me until this point, nearly halfway through the HS, to realise that Darwin was going in chronological order. I blame sleep deprivation.

P57 is where I had a sudden “I really should know this” moment. I’m reading this bit and thinking, who the fuck wrote the Vestiges of Creation? I distinctly remembered hearing about it in class years ago, but I couldn’t for the life of me attach a name to it. For the record, Vestiges, a pop-sci book about the evolution of everything (written by a Scotsman named Robert Chambers) was originally published anonymously, so I’m not going to feel too bad about not remembering the author.

Here comes our first example of wonderful academic snark. Vestiges, by Darwin’s account, sounds like a big heap of vitalistic mumbo-jumbo, complete with ladder-thinking and generally likely to make me tear my hear out should I ever be brave enough to read it. I get the distinct impression that I share this opinion with one Mr Darwin – heck, I’m just going to quote his description of Vestiges in its full glory:

“But I cannot see how the two supposed ‘impulses’ account in a scientific sense for the numerous and beautiful co-adaptations which we see throughout nature; I cannot see that we thus gain any insight how, for instance, a woodpecker has become adapted to its peculiar habits of Life. The work, from its powerful and brilliant style, though displaying in the earlier editions little accurate knowledge and a great want of scientific caution, immediately had a very wide circulation. In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.”

So: it’s an overenthusiastic pile of pseudoscience that fails to actually explain anything, but I guess it’s… well-written? Oh, ol’ Chuck, you’re such a diplomat.

(Totally random aside: despite leaning towards biology and occasionally astronomy from an early age – so, definitely NOT chemistry – my first real encounter with vitalism, the belief that living things run on some kind of special life force, was in a book about the history of chemistry. Specifically, I learned how the first synthesis of an organic compound – urea – from completely inorganic sources dealt a great blow to the whole life force thing. The book in question was written in 1960s socialist Hungary and was, if memory serves, quite ideologically charged in places. That book would make for another interesting re-read, though probably not for anyone besides myself…)

Immediately after delivering third-degree burns to Vestiges, Darwin unleashes his diplomatic snark on Richard Owen, who was a bit of a… character. He has a reputation for trying to pass other people’s discoveries off as his own, and apparently Darwin’s natural selection was one of his targets. In the HS (p59 of my copy), Darwin summarises his take on Owen thusly:

“It is consolatory to me that others find Professor Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do. As far as the mere enunciation of the principle of natural selection is concerned, it is quite immaterial whether or not Professor Owen preceded me, for both of us, as shown in this historical sketch, were long ago preceded by Dr Wells and Mr Matthews.”

Or: Owen, WTF are you on about?

P60 – It appears that Herbert Spencer was the granddaddy of evolutionary psychology, in that he was the first to propose that mental capacities could evolve gradually in the same way physical characteristics can. Cool.

(Also in this general area: more untranslated French quotes. From Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, not Spencer.)

P61: Add Naudin to the “plastic archetypes” fan club. And have YET MORE French.

There is an interesting, if only tangentially related, footnote here. All through my reread of the HS I was waiting for Darwin to explain why his take on evolution was special and important, and contrary to my hazy recollection, he never does. (Not in the HS, anyway; my memory of Origin proper is not good enough to recall whether he does it later.) The closest he gets is in the p61 footnote, where he notes that 27 of the 34 authors he discusses “have written on special branches of natural history or geology”, which I interpret to mean that a general discussion of evolutionary theory had been lacking up to that point. So Origin’s perk is the breadth of its coverage? I’m not going to disagree with that…

(Our regular scheduling is interrupted for more French quotes. *le sigh*)

On p62, we finally get to the “other guy”, Alfred Russel Wallace, whom everyone always forgets about. Darwin doesn’t go into great detail; I suppose he figured the fact that they kind of published their theories of natural selection together sufficed. However, he does praise Wallace’s 1858 essay that made its way into the Journal of the Linnean Society for its “admirable force and clearness”. Darwin does seem like a guy who gives credit where credit is due.

Something I found interesting a few paragraphs from the end of the HS: how the same “Great Man” can mean totally different things to different people. I know Karl von Baer as one of the founding fathers of evo-devo, with his famous laws of embryology. However, when Darwin mentions von Baer’s belief in common descent, he only says that it was based mainly on biogeography. Are we even talking about the same von Baer??

Finally, the HS concludes with a little hat-tip to Darwin’s long-time friend, correspondent and fellow nerd, Joseph Hooker. Hooker will make many more appearances in Origin if memory serves – he was the source of many of the observations on which Darwin built his mighty edifice. Those two: geeky bromance of the (19th) century.

Concluding thoughts

Reading this Historical Sketch again made me wonder why it is Darwin that we remember today as “the” father of evolution. Origin may not be a totally academic work, but it sure as hell isn’t light reading. Yet it was immensely popular – the first edition sold out as soon as it was published, and the book saw six editions during Darwin’s lifetime. Was it the completeness of his treatment? His excellent social network? Was it simply a case of right place, right time? I should probably let historians of science ruminate on that. Instead, I shall move on to the Introduction. But not today. Definitely enough meandering for today!


(Small) footnotes:

[1] Which, by the way, he still considered unfinished at the time of publication, but I’m jumping ahead of myself here. [Back to post]

[2] As we’ll (hopefully) see later in the re-read, this idea didn’t seem quite so silly at the time – Darwin himself didn’t fully discount it. He did scoff at other components of Lamarck’s theory of evolution, however. [Back to post]

[3] No, he does not use “race” in that sense. [Back to post]



Johnson CN (2007) The preface to Darwin’s Origin of Species: the curious history of the “Historical Sketch”. Journal of the History of Biology 40:529-556.