Hi! My name is John. I’ve got a PhD in evolutionary biology, and I’ve spent much of the past decade writing about evolutionary ideas, as applied to everything from literary criticism, to language, to anti-terror policy, and even on occasion to biology. And I’ve got a confession – I’ve never read the Origin of Species.
Do I shock you? Good.
I am not proud of this (really, I’m not), but if my professional life has been less stellar than it might have been, it’s not for want of reading Darwin. Here’s why. Darwin was working at the dawn of biology. He had none of the specialist knowledge and techniques that have come to dominate the study of evolution, such as genetic and mathematical analyses. And the specialist knowledge he did deploy — such as about animal breeding — is little used by today’s professional scientists. More generally, biology erases its past more effectively than any other science. E still equals mc2, and is likely to do so for some time, likewise F=ma, or any other physical law or mathematical proof you could name. But biology, with the exception of Darwin’s theory, has always been more about the data, and data are temporary.
Another factor/excuse I could point to is that the essence of the theory of evolution by natural selection is so gloriously simple — inheritance, plus mutation, plus selection, equals evolution — that I’ve never felt compelled to tackle 400-plus pages of what I fear may be turgid Victorian prose to be convinced. While wanting or needing to read something are both good motives for picking it up, nothing is more likely to suck the fun out of a book than the feeling that you ought to read it.
None of this is meant to suggest that it’s better not to have read Darwin, of course, just to illustrate that it’s possible to have a professional relationship with evolution while remaining ignorant of its foundations.
Nevertheless, you wouldn’t be much of a Marxist if you’d never read Das Kapital, or a Freudian if you’d never read The Interpretation of Dreams. (Although as I write that, I wonder whether I really want to call myself a Darwinian, and suspect that the fact that the label Darwinian can be attached to people as well as ideas illustrates evolution’s contentious and insecure place in wider society, relative to other branches of science — no one’s a Einsteinian, or a Lavoisierian.) So it’s time to fix that. And, ahem, inspired by Slate’s splendid Blogging the Bible series, and recognizing that it’s a freelance writer’s lot to make work out of his inadequacies, I’m delighted that Scienceblogs are giving me the chance to read the book in public, and write about the experience.
Between now and Darwin day, 12 February, I’ll be writing 15 posts covering the Origin’s introduction and 14 chapters, plus a what-have-we-learned concluding effort. I may also try and weave in some other relevant stuff (for example, I’ve got an extreme geeky excitement brewing about the upcoming meeting on the evolution of society at the Royal Society on 19-20 January).
Of course, the point isn’t just for me to parade my ignorance. It’s for you to parade your smarts. So, if you’ve been meaning to read the Origin for ages and want some company, if you’ve read it already and want to share your thoughts, correct my errors or point out things I’ve missed, or if you’ve no intention of reading it but want to get an idea of what it’s all about – welcome.
I have two main, and entirely contradictory, aims. First, I want to read Darwin from the perspective of someone reasonably clued up about evolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and see how the man’s ideas stand up in the light of what we know and think about genetics, ecology, evo-devo, paleontology and the like.
But I also want to imagine it’s the 24 November 1859, and that the copy I’ve just picked up at my local book shop (the 1982 Penguin Classics edition) is in fact one of the 1,250 first editions published that day by John Murray of Albermarle Street, London, price 14 shillings — “more than a week’s wages for a labourer”, at the time, according to Janet Browne, about $75 in contemporary terms, according to measuringworth.com.
That evening, I settle in the parlour, put a taper to the gaslight, toss another urchin on the fire, and begin reading. Will I be thrilled? Horrified? Sceptical? Baffled? Bored? Let’s use part of our brains to try and ignore all that we now know about Darwin’s biography and legacy, pretend that this is our first encounter with his theory, and that evolution must stand or fall on the quality of the science and writing in the Origin.
Join me back here soon [update: tomorrow] to tackle the introduction.