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.

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!"

Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Origin of Species: Beginning

The next book I'm tackling is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (or just On the Origin of Species for short!) by Charles Darwin. I'm taking (well, just finishing) a cellular biology class this quarter and we have been discussing some of Darwin's theories, etc. in class so I felt this was a good time to read this one.  We have also been studying Mendel's theories of genetic inheritance, information which Darwin did not have access to at the time he wrote this book, but which would have helped him to explain some of the mysteries of genetic transmission that he didn't fully understand. 
Charles Darwin was twenty-two years old when he took the post of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle which sailed from England to explore South America in 1831.  The evidence Darwin collected on this trip, specifically his study of the finches on the islands of the Galapagos, was influential in establishing his future theories.
Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and although it was not the first suggestion of natural selection or of this process of evolution, it was one of the most influential on the scientific community. 
One funny anecdote about him: ever the methodical person, when he was contemplating marriage to his future wife Emma, he made a list of pros and cons for marriage.  Under the pros column, he wrote "constant companion and friend in old age...better than a dog anyhow" and under the cons: "less money for books" and "terrible loss of time."  Evidently "better than a dog" outweighed the loss of money for books!
Charles Darwin died in 1882 of congestive heart failure.  I'm sure I don't have to tell you how influential his work has been on the world or why I chose this book for the list.  An Examiner review of the book from December of 1859 says, "Much of Mr. Darwin's volume is what ordinary readers would call 'tough reading;' that is, writing which to comprehend requires concentrated attention and some preparation for the task. All, however, is by no means of this description, and many parts of the book abound in information, easy to comprehend and both instructive and entertaining."

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Room with a View: 100% Complete

I did it! I finished A Room with a View.  For whatever reason, I really enjoyed the second half, after finding the first half really dull.  I'm glad I suffered through it, though, because the characters, the settings, everything seemed to come alive in the second half.  It suddenly seemed like things were happening when before, it seemed like nothing was.  I would be curious to know if anyone else has had this same experience with this book or if it's just me. 
Now that I'm finished, I wanted to go back and start over, because I started to notice that Forster peppered the story with a few choice words that seem to hold a lot of symbolism, most notably the words "room" and "view."  I think he meant "room" to represent convention and proper place in society: the place of Lucy's fiance Cecil.  She says at one point that she always pictures him in a room.  The view, which first comes into play when George Emerson and his father give up their rooms (which have views) for Lucy and her cousin at the Italian hotel where they are all staying, is representative of passion, of breaking out of the rules of society.  I didn't notice these reoccurring themes until I was three quarters of the way done with the book, but once I did, I wanted to go back and start over.
I don't have a vocabulary word today, but I do have a couple of quotes which were funny and made me laugh and one which I found very insightful.
First, the problem of Cecil, who is conventional, but annoying:
"He had been rather a nuisance all through the tennis, for the novel that he was reading was so bad that he was obliged to read it aloud to others.  He would stroll round the precincts of the court and call out: 'I say, listen to this, Lucy.  Three split infinitives.'"
And the traveling Miss Alans:
"They always perched there [in Bloomsbury, England] before crossing the great seas, and for a week or two they would fidget gently over clothes, guide-books, mackintosh squares, digestive bread and other Continental necessities.  That there are shops abroad, even in Athens, never occurred to them, for they regarded travel as a species of welfare, only to be undertaken by those who have been fully armed at the Haymarket Stores."
And finally, a quote in which I found a great deal of truth:
"It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, 'She loves young Emerson.'  A reader in Lucy's place would not find it obvious.  Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome 'nerves' or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire."
I especially like the line: "Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice."  How true.
So up next? On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Room with a View: 64% Complete

I got quite a bit of reading done this weekend, so I'm past the halfway point in A Room with a View.  I must say, I'm enjoying the second half of the book quite a bit.  The book, for those of you who have not read it, is divided into two parts, the first part taking place in Italy, and the second part back in England.  In the first part it felt like the characters did lots of things but nothing really happened, if that makes any sense.  But the second part, so far, is much more engaging.  So I'm enjoying it a lot more.
The word I have for you today is "pourboire" which means a tip.  Literally it's French for "money for drinking" which I suppose is what a tip usually is anyway, right?
One thing I enjoy about this book is how E. M. Forster is constantly poking fun at British sensibilities, particularly their feelings about class and proper social positions.  I have two quotes for you today that illustrate that, I think.  First:
"Miss Bartlett had asked Mr. George Emerson what his profession was, and he had answered 'the railway.'  She was very sorry that she had asked him.  She had no idea that it would be such a dreadful answer, or she would not have asked him." 
And secondly:
"'You ought to find a tenant at once,' he said maliciously.  'It would be perfect paradise for a bank clerk.'
'Exactly! said Sir Harry excitedly. 'That is exactly what I fear, Mr Vyse.  It will attract the wrong type of people.  The train service has improved--a fatal improvement, to my mind.  And what are five miles from a station in these days of bicycles?'
'Rather a strenuous clerk it would be,' said Lucy.  Cecil, who had his full share of medieval mischievousness, replied that the physique of the lower middle classes was improving at a most appalling rate."
(On an unrelated side note, I always get a twinge of pride when I spell check my entry and the day's vocabulary word comes up as misspelled when I know it's not.  It just proves that it's a word most people don't use.)