Blogging the Origin

Archives for January, 2009

Thomas Kuhn — the one philosopher of science that even ignorami like me have heard of — said that during periods of ‘normal science’, researchers only take on problems that they know they can solve. ‘Paradigm’ is an overused word, but it’s a measure of the paradigm-shifting nature of the Origin that in much of…

Chapter 8: Hybridism

George Bernard Shaw, according to a comment left on a previous post, thought that many people gave up on reading the Origin because, convinced of Darwin’s argument, they wearied of him making his points over and over again. But I disagree. It’s not seeing Darwin restate his case that’s tiring. It’s seeing him return, like…

Chapter 7: Instinct

Science is fun. Now, I know that someone telling you a thing is fun is usually a guarantee that it isn’t. And I know that people who tell you science is fun usually do so in strained and pleading tones, and expect you to believe them because they have spiky hair and can play the…

Chapter 6: Difficulties with Theory

Up until now, our route into the theory of evolution by natural selection has been all downhill. One thing has led effortlessly to another, with Darwin giving the occasional nudge to steer things in the right direction. Not any more. If it’s human interest you’re after — doubt, sweat, anxiety — then chapter 6 of…

Chapter 5: Laws of Variation

To a man with a hammer, said Mark Twain, everything looks like a nail. The better your hammer, I would add, the more nail-like everything looks. In natural selection, Darwin had crafted one of the best hammers of all time. And in chapter 5 of the origin, ‘Laws of Variation’, you can hear him umming…

Chapter 4: Natural Selection

Mathematicians and physicists speak of a result ‘falling out of the equations’, implying that if you set things up properly, the rest takes care of itself. Chapter 4 of the Origin, ‘Natural Selection’, is where evolution falls out of the machinery that Darwin has spent the three previous chapters assembling. And I hate to say…

Chapter 3: Struggle for Existence

If, so far, you’ve been finding Mr Darwin’s book tough going (it’s OK, there’s no shame in admitting it), here’s what you should do: skip all that flannel about variation, and start here. This is where it gets serious.

Chapter 2: Variation Under Nature

Here’s a project for a playful biology grad student with some time on his or her hands. Take chapter 2 of the Origin of Species, ‘Variation Under Nature’, and modernize the language. Toss in a few figures and some contemporary citations. Give the result a title like ‘A routemap for biodiversity research 200 years after…

Man, this guy didn’t know anything.

Introduction

Among the small thrills of encountering canonical works for the first time – Homer, say, or the King James Bible, or Star Wars – are the moments when you come across some turn of phrase so well-used it has been worn flat into the surface of everyday speech and think: so that’s where that comes…