Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!
12 February 2009
“Certainly, no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants.” Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter VIII
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, a milestone of sorts, though not perhaps so much of a milestone as when 2059 rolls around marking the 200th anniversary of the Origin of Species. I probably won’t be around for that anniversary, however (unless the dawning technological singularity comes along to extend my life), so I might as well celebrate the achievements of Darwin today.
No one has influenced me more the Darwin. I’ve been through the Origin of Species twice and the Voyage of the Beagle twice. Darwin’s works are not only great science, but they are great literature: the descriptions of his observations and his experiments are a model of simplicity and clarity. My thinking is through and through permeated with the Darwinian approach.
Once I grasped the essence of natural selection, and at the same time grasped that a generalization of natural selection applies to cosmological evolution, I began to purposefully and systematically shift my thinking. I try to catch myself thinking in teleological terms, and when I do I ask myself to invert my thought, and shift from an emphasis on ends to means. I consciously think my way through things in terms of selection instead of intuitive thinking in terms of ends and goals. This has proved to be a wonderful intellectual exercise for me, and has afforded me with many insights I would not have come to any other way.
Seeing the Amazon and Galapagos Islands changed my conception of species diversity — what I saw was interesting, but it also was not what I expected. The variety that biologists speak of is not necessarily a great variety to the untrained eye. Here the more dramatic differences between genera, family, etc., make a greater impression. We may see more dramatic difference between two individuals of the same species, and more especially between individuals of different geographical races (breeds, subspecies) of the same species, than between individuals of distinct yet closely related species. Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos resemble each other more than different breeds of dogs.
Observable characteristics, as in cladistic analysis of the phenotypic, can be deceptive. Also, observation includes (or may include) behavior, which in turn includes reproduction, i.e., we can observe descent in a limited way. The slight differences that constitute the specialist bird species of the Galapagos remind me of the trees of the Amazon, where the variety distinguished by the expert is often not apparent to the untrained eye. On a superficial level, subspecies may be more readily distinguishable than distinct species. But we should not be surprised by this, as there is no definition of species that commands universal assent among biologists.
In a recent review of Moby Dick, Doug Brown wrote, “I’m embarking on a ‘classics year,’ where I’m going to try to read a lot of those books that I know I should have read a long time ago. You know the ones — those books that we can all quote from and make references to, even though we’ve never actually cracked open a copy. I started last year by finally reading Darwin’s main books (Voyage of the Beagle is very readable and enjoyable — I regret I cannot say the same about Origin of Species, which is an encyclopedic litany of natural selection test cases).” I couldn’t disagree more. While The Voyage of the Beagle is a pleasant read, it contains none of the intellectual excitement of The Origin of Species. In an oft-quoted passage Darwin remarked that The Origin of Species is “one long argument” and I believe that one really must go to the source for the unabridged version to experience the full power of Darwin’s thought. It is inspirational to visit the Galapagos and to see what, in part, inspired Darwin, but it is far more important and far more inspirational to explore Darwin’s thought itself.
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It is also the birthday, and also the 200th anniversary, for a great American — Abraham Lincoln… so Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln!
While the coincidence of their birth dates is an historical accident, the role each played in history is far from accidental, and their very different lives have at least this in common: both Darwin and Lincoln left the world a more honest place than each found it, and that is a remarkable achievement.
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