Return to Origin part 2

In which Darwin’s Introduction sends me off on tangents about academic writing, gender and the nature of explanations.

The Origin of Species reread returns! Eventually! So much for increasing my productivity, but hey, at least I didn’t give up after the first one! (For the record, this post has been 99% written for the past month. It only took me that long to convince myself that hitting the “publish” button won’t turn me into the laughing stock of the universe.)

This won’t be as long as Part One, since the Introduction isn’t as long as the Historical Sketch either. In comparison with modern scientific works, the Intro is basically the abstract of Origin, mixed with a few acknowledgements. It covers pp. 65-69 of my copy.

It’s amusing and endearing how much of the first couple of pages is spent swearing up and down that Darwin didn’t pull his theory out of his backside. Also, the “sorry I couldn’t give you all the facts, I had to be brief” apology always cracks me up – if 400 pages full of facts is your idea of brevity, man, you should be writing epic fantasy, not science 😛 (Also: perfectionist much?)

I have written my own handful of scientific articles in my time as a PhD student, which definitely gives one a different perspective on some of the writing conventions in such works. (It should go without saying, but this is my individual perspective; I certainly don’t claim to represent all writers of scientific articles.) When authors talk about caution and caveats and more data being needed, I think most of the time they are both sincere and not. Scientists – the ones I’ve met, at least – generally seem like decent people who honestly worry about getting stuff right and not letting wishful thinking get in the way of good science.

However, when you’re preparing a manuscript for a peer-reviewed academic journal, there is always an element of satisfying reviewers, and if you sound more confident than the reviewers think your data warrant, they will comment on that. Adding caveats is not just a sign that you understand the limitations of your work, it is also insurance against being hassled by editors and reviewers. (And then there’s always throwing a bone to your worst enemies just in case they try to sabotage your paper, because scientists can be just as petty and occasionally awful as humanity at large, and often, anonymity doesn’t actually make it that much harder to figure out whose paper you’re reviewing.)

With all that said, it never occurred to me that Darwin wasn’t perfectly sincere in his numerous apologies for not providing even more evidence. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. Please don’t disillusion me. I’m a giant ol’ sap at heart, okay?

P65 has another shoutout to Wallace, and p66 a huge acknowledgement to Hooker (an eminent scientist in his own right). This Darwin-Hooker bromance is making me all mushy inside! (See above: giant, sappy)

Pp66-7 contain, aside from another little dig at the Vestiges of Creation, some first-class philosophy fodder. Here, Darwin emphasises the importance of providing mechanisms when positing a new phenomenon. Lots of people, he says, might look at the similarities among species and conclude that different species have descended from common ancestors. “Nevertheless,” he continues, “such a conclusion, even if well founded, would be unsatisfactory, until it could be shown how the innumerable species inhabiting this world have been modified, so as to acquire that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

Do we agree with this assessment? How much is suggesting a “what” worth without an accompanying “how”? And how necessary is a mechanism for the acceptance of a new scientific idea? The simple, distilled high-school science class version of the story of continental drift, for example, tells you that Alfred Wegener was laughed out of the room because he couldn’t say what force might make continents waltz across the surface of the planet. Then someone came up with mantle convection, and Wegener’s idea finally triumphed. The actual story, as is usually the case, seems a bit more complicated than that, but it does sound like the general acceptance of the idea needed that mechanistic underpinning that its proponents couldn’t quite provide at first.

While looking for scientific ideas that might have been widely accepted without that underpinning, I found myself getting really philosophical and wondering what counts as a mechanism. Perhaps this is easier to answer in biology, where most explanations can at least be conceptualised. One doesn’t have much difficulty imagining some individuals being better at procreation than others, and babies resembling their parents (the very dumbed-down essence of natural selection). What about physics, where shit gets really weird and soon leaves the realm of human experience when you start digging deep enough? Did physicists accept concepts like gravity, dark matter and dark energy because the maths worked out, because the observations were so bloody obvious that something had to be going on, or because “attractive force”, “weakly interacting massive particle” or “vacuum energy” make sense to human brains? (Of course, I wouldn’t expect a physicist to accept anything based solely on the third, but where the maths could go multiple ways, as – so far as I understand – on the boundaries of modern cosmology, is it easier to lean towards the equations that correspond to concepts that make the most sense?)

… I guess what I’m saying is that this stuff is fascinating to ponder, and if anyone points me to a readable discussion of the subject by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, I might well put it on my ever-expanding reading list…

P67 then reminded me how times have changed since Darwin’s day. Here, he discusses “man” and his “great power” in “accumulating slight variations”. Every time he talks about something humans did, it’s always a “he” (well, at least up to the end of the next chapter 😛 ). We’ve certainly come a long way when it comes to recognising the rest of humanity’s role in history…

This is where I decided that I needed to keep an eye out for any mention of female scientists (or just women in general) – women of science have existed for as long as science itself, but I’m curious whether Darwin drew on the work of any. It’s always satisfying to see women’s achievements recognised by their male contemporaries, especially in times when it wasn’t fashionable to do so. It would be extra satisfying to see it from a man I like and admire in his own right.

There is not much to say about the rest of the Introduction, except to note that it’s a decent summary of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. He lists the basic elements of the theory (variation + competition = natural selection + extinction), the main categories of evidence he used to come to his conclusions (artificial selection, embryology, ecology, biogeography, fossils) and the main questions that the theory must answer (novelties of morphology and behaviour, the sterility of hybrids, and the gaps in the fossil record). All of these will make extended appearances in the course of the book.

The last paragraph of the Intro is such a typical conclusion to a scientific abstract that I had to smile when reading it. There is still much to be learned, but the author is convinced that he is right about X, Y and Z. Not saying this is a bad way to conclude an introduction – all I’m saying is that for me, it’s a well-worn trope of academic writing that echoes with the voices of a thousand other works.

Next time, we’ll get into the meat of Origin proper. It turns out that the meat in Origin is often pigeon. (Seriously. Darwin was obsessed with pigeons.)