Tuesday, March 12, 2013
On the Origin of Species: 15% Complete
I'm actually enjoying this book a lot more than I thought I would. For school I've been reading some scientific journal articles and they're mostly dry, complicated and full of jargon and terms I have to look up to even sort of understand the piece. I sort of expected this book to be similar in some ways. But Darwin's writing is poetic, passionate and almost chatty. I can feel Darwin's excitement and enthusiasm about the subject coming through and reading this book feels like sitting down around a fire with a cup of tea and chatting with him about his ideas. He often has to check himself as he becomes too excited and begins to ramble on. For example, this line: "I am tempted to give one more instance showing how plants and animals, most remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations." Scientists do not write like that now. Some things I have read about this book have complained that Darwin's lack of writing experience comes through and makes the book harder to read, but I think that is one of the things I like about it. He writes as he probably spoke, rather than writing as a professional writer. Sure, his style could probably be improved, but the somewhat rambling nature of the book is really enjoyable from my point of view.
I have no vocabulary words for you today. Darwin actually has a surprisingly small vocabulary for someone that is ingrained in a particular field (now days you almost need a whole second language to understand scientific speak). The terms he doesn't have, he coins, but they are quite self-explanatory.
One thing that I have found almost distressing is how Darwin didn't have access to the research done only a few years later by Gregor Mendel. For those of you who don't know, Mendel was an Augustinian friar who is often called, "the father of modern genetics." Between 1856 and 1863, Mendel did some ground-breaking work on genetics by studying pea plants. He was the first to really begin to understand genetic inheritance including dominant and recessive traits. Although his work was published in Darwin's lifetime, there is no evidence that Darwin ever read it (it was not initially well-received) and he certainly could not have read it before he published On the Origin of Species. It seems a shame to me that he didn't have access to this information that could have explained so much for him. Take, for example, this paragraph:
"The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, and in individuals of different species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so; why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or other much more remote ancestor; why a peculiarity is often transmitted from one sex to both sexes or to one sex alone, more commonly, but not exclusively to the like sex."
While reading this, I just want to yell at the page, "Yes! We do know why those things happen! If only you knew, Darwin, if only you knew!"