Friday, January 9, 2009

Darwin progress

I started On the Origin of Species last night. I'm reading a slightly different version than John is--he's reading the first edition, and I'm reading the 6th (which, according to the book jacket, is the last edition to have had edits made to it by Darwin himself). However, the introductions are apparently sufficiently similar that I can understand his discussion of the introduction. (Plus, I have to admit that I'm glad he didn't get through chapter 1 last night, either. One of the problems with doing most of my reading in bed is that I periodically fall asleep before I've finished.)

At the end of his post, John mentions his surprise that Darwin acknowledges his and Wallace's nearly simultaneous arrival at the concept of natural selection. That didn't surprise me very much, because the preface to the 6th edition consists of an "Historical Sketch of the progress of opinion on the Origin of Species, previously to the publication of the first edition of this work." In it, Darwin summarizes the work of various key players in the study of the origin of species. The first person he discusses in any depth is Lamarck (although he gives passing reference to Aristotle, as well), and his summary extends to publications and presentations by Huxley and Hooker in late 1859, the same year the first edition of Origin was published.

I found the historical sketch to be quite an interesting read (despite his penchant for quoting works by French authors in the original language). Although it pains me to admit it, my knowledge of the history of the theory of evolution is abysmally lacking. I was surprised at the sheer number of researchers that had done significant work (and reached conclusions in line with, if not completely similar to, Darwin's) prior to the publication of Origin. Of course, I know that Darwin held off publication of the book for a while after formulating his ideas. But I do find it refreshing that he acknowledges the influence of others on the generation of his ideas.

Another line in the introduction that I found interesting: "No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded...For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived." (p. 2)

I was struck by the apparent prescience of this statement: could Darwin, perhaps, have been anticipating the likes of Ray Comfort?

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