This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
On Natural Selection
by Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
“The illustration of the swimbladder in fishes is a good one, because it shows us clearly the highly important fact that an organ originally constructed for one purpose, namely flotation, may be converted into one for a wholly different purpose, namely respiration.”
The world-changing book that provided the basic framework for and defense of the theory of evolution. This scientific text has had social and political relevance ever since publication in 1859. This extract includes “Struggle for Existence,” “Natural Selection,” “Difficulties on Theory,” and “Conclusion.”
Strangely enough, my first thought on reading parts of this abridged version of On Natural Selection was about population control–and that what Darwin observed about animals applied to human beings, and that those observations constituted social and political thoughts in a very raw form. When Darwin writes about each species’ desire to propagate and increase its numbers, and the repercussions of this innate instinctual, even cellular, commandment, it is not just a discussion of a component of ecosystems, a precursor to a discussion of evolution, it is also a warning about preserving the natural balance. “There is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair. Even slow-breeding man has doubled in twenty-five years, and at this rate, in a few thousand years, there would literally not be standing room for his progeny.”
“Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount,” Darwin writes. And so it has been with humankind, with our own free will having mitigated our destruction at the possible cost of our destruction by overpopulation.
Darwin starts with seeds and evolves upward in these texts. Seeds are seeds and hard to get excited about, but in the dawdling about seeds Darwin is making a patience argument, much like Ruskin, but without any of Ruskin’s flare. Darwin’s flare is in the details of his argument, and thus going slow and discussing plants has the advantage of perhaps putting off guard those most likely to spasm into convulsions at the thought of monkeys being the ancestors of people. Thus there is mention of Linnaeus and gardens and climate, and at one point, much to my delight, “humble-bees” (which I hope is not a typographical error). From humble-bees, it is not much further to field mice, and by now we begin to see the faint outline, the kind of gradual curve, of Darwin’s ultimate destination–a sense of competition that becomes fiercer in our imaginations when it takes place between types of rodents than between types of vegetables. At the very least, we have a nice description of the relationship between certain organisms.
I like in particular the line “The dependency of one organic being on another…lies generally between beings remote in the scale of nature,” perhaps because of my father’s studies of invasive species, in which invariably the same near-sighted story plays out when human beings are involved–the bird brought in to eat the insect that was ruining the crops only to become a pest of a different kind, and the lack of the insect creating some other imbalance in a system devised by the universe’s greatest engineer and systematic ruined by us, some of the worst.
Darwin’s sentences tend to have an abstract quality even when he is talking about flesh-and-blood animals that I found interesting at times.* Although he includes his direct observations, he more commonly, at least in these selections, works with hypothetical examples and somewhat bloodless diagrams in word form. It is important to Darwin, it seems to me, that he not get bogged down in unnecessary description and detail. I kept thinking about his great expedition to the Galapagos and elsewhere–imagining in my mind’s eye, sadly enough, the scenes in Master and Commander. The whip of the waves and wind. The salty green eyes of the iguanas, and the black-rock coast. There’s none of that in On Natural Selection–we have to imagine it from our own context.
I’m not saying this kind of detail should be there–just that when, in “Difficulties on Theory,” Darwin gives us such detail, it invigorates the text with a kind of animated still-life, as when he writes, “Look at the family of squirrels; here we have the finest gradation from animals with their tails only slightly flattened, and from others, as Sir J Richardson has remarked, with the posterior part of their bodies rather wide and with the skin on their flanks rather full, to the so-called flying squirrel; and flying squirrels have their limbs and even the base of the tail united by a broad expanse of skin, which serves as a parachute and allows them to glide through the air to an astonishing distance from tree to tree.” Observations of flying lemurs, bats, logger-headed ducks, tyrant flycatchers, and much more soon follow, much to my entertainment (even recognizing that this was not Darwin’s primary purpose).
As someone with a scientist father (research on: fire ants, moths, rhinoceros beetles), the rest all seems rather tame, and it’s somewhat difficult on an emotional, gut, level to understand the furor this book created upon publication. Specifically, it is difficult to see how anyone, reading the gentle means by which Darwin places humankind within the rightful context of the natural world,** could really object to this assessment. I have wondered many times, perhaps in ignorance of accepted dogma, what stops a religious person from accepting evolution. What affront against religion is offered by this matter-of-fact text? That stops the worshipper from saying simply, “I believe in God, and I believe God created evolution to further His plan in this world.” (Other than, of course, that stubbornly literal six thousand years in the Bible.)
That simply observing the ways of the natural world, and its complex interdependency, should be grounds for such consternation seems to prove that we are indeed animals, no different than apes, ruled by emotions and instinct that override logic and reason.
* At others, my eyes glazed over.
** Recognizing that some scientists dispute the details of Darwin’s version of evolution.
For the first time, omissions are too frequent to allow uninterrupted enjoyment and comprehension of the text.
Question for Readers
Why is evolution incompatible with religious belief?
Next up, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise…