I’m pretty sure I bought this book over two years ago, and for once in my life I am glad that I am really slow at things. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is not a good introduction to the theory of evolution. I am really glad that I have read and consumed much (a relative term) information on the subject before endeavoring to read this. Any modern reader today, without much previous knowlege of evolution, would find the subject, and the book, very boring I’m sure. Of course, that does not mean I didn’t like it. You see I have given it 5 stars, in the same way I would give a classic work such as an Emerson or Melville a 5, but I wouldn’t think put them on my favorites bookshelf.
What I found most valuable was realizing the extreme effort that Darwin put into this abstract. The theory of evolution, or how he puts it as decent with modification caused by natural selection, was not a simple thing to suggest at the time. The painstaking effort he took to look at his ideas from every opposing angle he saw, and refute each and every one is admirable. It can also be boring, I will fully admit that I skipped a few pages when he was explaining his experiments on hive bees and their instinct of making “perfect” hexagonal wax honeycombs. And probably most people are not familiar with pigeon fanciers and their numerous breeds he brings up time after time. But however obscure fancy pigeons are today, in Darwin’s time they were at least known, and were the perfect conduit for his theory.
The genius of Darwin conveying his concept is evident. It is one thing to realize that evolution has created the vast diversity of all life on earth, it is quite another to explain it in a way that is convincing. Yes, it wasn’t immediately well received. But it is incredibly smart how he frames his abstract, with first discussing pigeon breeding and various other domesticated animals, where secretly the foundations of modification based on decent and natural section are all lurking. You almost cannot refuse his theory if you accept, and know, that all fancy pigeon breeds originated from the wild rock pigeon! And yet that is only the first argument, and he continues through topics such as instinct, geographic distribution, embryology etc and explains how everything we know about each topic fits with, and difficulties in each can even be explained by, natural selection. And I am sure any reader will chuckle darkly and nod at the chapter titled “The Struggle For Existence,” because we all know that one well.
I found that where the book shined was in his summaries of each chapter, and his conclusion, where mere facts were put aside, and the personality of Darwin was more evident. How joyous it is to read a statement like this “.. when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history be!” You can almost feel the personal revolution that must have happened inside him to come to viewing every organism as an incredibly complex piece of history, both independent, and deeply connected with every other organism! This is exactly what I love about the natural world and why I am personally fascinated with evolution. There is an inconceivable amount of history and unknown in each living being, and that is precisely what is exciting. Darwin says “The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.” How strange is it that I want to, and many others do, study something beyond full comprehension. How strange is it to think about our own existence as a process we may not be able to ever wrap our brains around, yet we study it anyways. Of course we study it, how could we not! It surely effects every other aspect of biology in ways we do not understand, but that we will strive to for many years to come.
I cannot review this book without mentioning that I made this face 😬 a few times. When Darwin touches on human evolution a smattering of times, it gets dicey, and maybe you know that Darwin’s book “The Decent of Man,” is even more dicey. I have not read it. It is unfortunately easy to see where genetic determinism proponents could read some passages in this abstract uncarefully, and be fulled by their ideas. Darwin did not know what we know now about human variation, genetics, and the extremely broad concept of intelligence that are still being shown and fought over today, and yes it is improbably that anyone of Darwin’s social position would be not racist at the time; so one must read this book and use their critical lens from time to time. I invite anyone who after reading this book to thus read “It Is Unethical To Teach Evolution Without Confronting Racism And Sexism” from evolution-institute.org as I am rereading right now.
It is a complex thing to read the book that effectively changed the way people think about both their existence, and the existence of everything living they know on this planet. It is naive to think that it wouldn’t be a hard read, both scientifically and socially. And it is naive to think that humans have reacted to it in always a quote unquote good manner. If you get anything out of this book may it be the deep way that absolutely everything we know is connected, both currently and in a vast history, in a way that must, and does, effect everything.
Note in March 2019
After a few months of taking two classes that have an evolutionary focus, and participating in the RCN coordinated readings so far, I feel differently. Mostly I am realizing how the field has changed since Darwin, because he was adamant at thinking that the environment did not effect the evolution of species very much. I think anyone studying any effect of climate change would balk at that. The rise of the ecological species concept, and the vast scientific history between Darwin and now is something I am not knowledgable about, but am hungry to understand. And I am super laughing at myself for thinking I’ve read enough to read it. I really need to read the Modern Synthesis and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. I am really itching to read the extended but I know it would be best for me to read the Huxley first. Being in Hollie’s lab really has me thinking about the extension of everything.