Monday, March 25, 2013

On the Origin of Species: 48% Complete

I was getting a little bogged down in Darwin so I took a little break (gasp!) and read something a little lighter and not on the list; namely, Tina Fey's wonderfully funny and insightful autobiography: Bossypants.  (Favorite quote: "We drove out of town a little ways, listening to Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes.'  [He] played that song constantly. He was very deep. Did I mention yet that he always wore a small shell necklace and he told me that he was never going to take it off until Apartheid ended?")
When I started this project I promised myself I would take a break now and then to read something newer, lighter and funnier than most of the books on the list, so I don't get too far behind and emerge from the wreckage at the age of 30 with no idea what had been written in the last six years.  So it was fun and now I'm back to Darwin again, refreshed.
The word of the day isn't a word at all, but rather a phrase Darwin mentioned.  My meager Latin skills weren't quite up to the task of translating it, but luckily Wikipedia was much more helpful. The phrase is "Natura non facit saltum" which means "Nature does not make jumps."  On a philosophical sort of Sunday morning a few months ago, as I was lying in bed, I noticed this phenomenon: that large, dramatic changes in nature are rarely beneficial; that real, meaningful change takes time.  Of course there are all sort of personal, deep, philosophical implications for this, but mostly I was just excited to find that I wasn't the first person to notice this.  Perhaps it was a bit egotistical of me to suppose that I might have been the first, but at least I'm not totally batty.  Yet.
One of the things I'm loving about this book is all the examples Darwin puts in of the various things he is discussing in nature.  He has, apparently, a vast collection of stories and observations about nature floating around in his head waiting to be linked to a phenomenon and many of them are fascinating things I never knew about.  For example:
"As in repeating a well-known song, so in instincts, one action follows another by a sort of rhythm;  if a person be interrupted in a song, or in repeating anything by rote, he is generally forced to go back to recover the habitual train of thought: so P. Huber found it was with a caterpillar, which makes a very complicated hammock; for if he took a caterpillar which had completed its hammock up to, say, the sixth stage of construction, and put it into a hammock completed only up to the third stage, the caterpillar simply reperformed the fourth, fifth and sixth stages of construction.  If, however, a caterpillar were taken out of a hammock made up, for instance, to the third stage, and were put into one finished up to the sixth stage, so that much of its work was already done for it, far from feeling the benefit of this, it was much embarrassed, and, in order to complete its hammock, seemed forced to start from the third stage, where it had left off, and thus tried to complete the already finished work."
First of all, I loved the notion that the caterpillar was "embarrassed" that the work was already complete.  And secondly, you'll notice that whole section is only two sentences.  You've got to love nineteenth-century Englishmen and their astounding sentence construction.

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